Category Archives: philosophy

Peterson v. Newman and Progressive Creationism

Progressives like to imagine themselves the steely, hard bitten arbiters of objective truth, scientific realism and an ever elusive, albeit objectively true, secular morality based on identity. They’re the self-appointed champions of a never-ending quest to abolish “oppression”. You can go to just about any leftist social media page and find numerous Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson memes belittling conservatives for their refusal to accept the Settled Science of climate change and evolution. As any conversation with a progressive will confirm, conservatives are nothing more than a collection of hidebound, knuckle dragging troglodytes who hate science, gays and immigrants. And it’s the poor, long suffering, enlightened progressives who are tasked with the burden of lifting these lower life forms from the swamp of evolution through political protest, hashtag campaigns, pussyhats, and increasingly, a staunch refusal to even egage their opponents on the intellectual battlefield. After all, anyone who doesn’t believe in #EQUALITY is just beneath contempt.

Unfortunately for progressives, this stubborn refusal to engage oppositional views has resulted in a lazy, smug, and entitled royalist mentality. Especially when it comes to being challenged on gender equality. This was perhaps never more evident than when British television journalist, Cathy Newman interviewed Canadian clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson. Since Jordan Peterson was catapulted into the limelight by resisting transgender pronoun tyranny, he’s predictably been tarred by progressive media as yet another alt-right, white supremacist. The fact that he self-identifies as a classical liberal is rarely, if ever mentioned or that his millions of supporters span the entire political spectrum. Nor is the fact that his work is geared towards warding off chaos, taking responsibility and grounding oneself in a set of values. Most importantly, his work is deeply focused on understanding how the mind becomes ideologically possessed and devolves into a tyrannical mindset. Subsequently, he has focused a great deal of attention on the steady encroachment of identity politics into the academic and public sphere.

This interview has justifiably been hailed as a glorious victory for both Peterson and for everyone pushing back against the cult-like mentality of #SocialJustice identity politics. When she wasn’t completely strawmanning his position, Cathy Newman alternated between condescension and puffed up indignation. Peterson dismantles her at every turn with laser guided precision and his calm, dispassionate demeanor. Peterson is like a real life version of Clint Eastwood’s Jonathan Hemlock in The Eiger Sanction. An intellectual who’s grounded in both the quality of his scholarship and the sturdiness of his convictions. In a word, a total badass. The memes that have surfaced are legendary too.

The Peterson phenomenon not only reveals the hollow pretense of progressivism, but the transformation that has overtaken the Left. When it comes to a progressive article of faith like gender equality, the alleged appreciation for scientific rigor is exposed as a shallow façade. The very people who constantly telegraph their appreciation for #SCIENCE with protest marches, slogans and memes seem to keep their outrage exclusively confined to bashing Creationists, skepticism of climate change, or anti-vaxxers. But if you bring up biological sex differences or evolutionary psychology, somehow you become a purveyor of pseudoscience. Funny how that works.

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Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

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Who is John Galt?

This is the mystery at the center of Ayn Rand’s 1957 brilliant, controversial but flawed magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.  Since Rand and her work remain deeply polarizing, I hope those of you who have already made up your minds about Rand will persevere with this post and hear me out.  Especially those of you who haven’t read her work, but have formulated opinions based solely on the actions or words of individuals who champion her work or hit pieces from the progressive media.

Despite the seemingly ceaseless parade of straw men from the writers at Salon, AlterNet and every other cesspool of progressive dross who attempt to prove otherwise, Atlas Shrugged is prophetic and radical on every level. It is perhaps more radical and relevant now than it was in its day, but mostly, because she’s asking the reader to empathize with heroes who are generally regarded as objects of revulsion and contempt. Individuals who, according to broad swaths of the population, need to be regulated, taxed, supervised and preferably, jailed. Individuals who, according to prevailing modern progressive mindset, are despoiling the earth, exploiting the worker and hoarding the wealth of the world.  These heroes are, of course, industrial magnates.

Atlas Shrugged is set in post-WW2 America, but it’s an America that never existed. It’s a mythological, dieselpunk retro-futuristic dystopian America. In this respect, Atlas Shrugged is properly understood as a work of dystopian science fiction. It is essentially a story of two industry leaders who are driven by a deep sense of purpose, but are thwarted by political apparatchiks, bureaucrats and would-be do-gooders whose greed, envy and narcissism are wrapped in pretensions of altruism of every stripe. As they proceed, other producers are mysteriously dropping out of society, and our heroes set out to unravel the mystery while the slow stranglehold of bureaucracy chokes progress all around them. Needless to say, it’s also an extended philosophical treatise on Objectivism which spells out Rand’s views on morality, ethics, the role of the State, and the rights of the individual. Rand does not suffer a shortage of critics of her writing or her worldview, and to be honest, a few of these criticisms have merit, but none detract from the towering achievement of this novel.

Rand’s first radical choice was making the heroes of the story captains of heavy industry. Though there are doubtless examples of railway and metallurgical innovation to be found, viewing the steel manufacturing and railway industry as dynamic fields of innovation was itself a leap of imagination. As the novel begins, Rand sets up an industry not yet completely captured by labor and regulation. She tacitly asks you to dispel the idea of the cartelized half-public/half-private industry that presently exists in America. As Amtrak proves itself a compost heap of mediocrity and inertia in the real world, Rand asks the reader to imagine steel and railways through the eyes of an Elon Musk-type mindset and builds the drama around the slowly accumulating regulatory death spiral.

As the title suggests, she also made these heroes movers of the world; titans of business which undergird modern society, and without which modern society could not function. Since the very notion of “capitalism” is presently so deeply tied to banking, high finance or software development, Rand grounds the novel with characters who make physical objects and must themselves literally move the earth in order to realize their plans.

This is an Ayn Rand novel, so naturally, our heroes are beset by the forces of collectivism and state authority at every turn. Just as she did in The Fountainhead, Rand rolls out her cannons of contempt and fires volley after volley at the ramparts of academic royalism, media pusillanimity and government bureaucracy. The regulatory state, economic planning, academic postmodernism, and state sponsored science are among her many targets. She reserves much of her heavy artillery for the statist orthodoxy of scientism and its attendant effects on social activism in order to illustrate the pernicious influence it breeds in academics, labor unions, lobbyists and social justice warriors.

Atlas Shrugged is an epic novel with a host of characters and subplots, but the main storyline centers around two characters: railroad heiress Dagny Taggart and steel magnate Hank Rearden. The heroes are eventually united with the mysterious John Galt and all of the dissident producers who dropped out of society to join the productive utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Hank Rearden is the steel industrialist and a classically Randian heroic archetype. When we are introduced to Rearden, he is portrayed as an elemental force; a portrait of grim stolidity whose iron will was forged in the same molten furnace that makes the steel beams he sells. In a subsequent scene, we’re introduced to his family and close associates. As each character is introduced, Rand is showing how each preys on Rearden’s spirit and goodwill in different ways and is laying out the themes and dramatic conflicts that will unfold throughout the remainder of the book.

I found Rand’s portrait of Rearden family life incisive and resonant. Rand shows how Hank feels like a stranger within his own family while exposing the how family members use guilt to extract obedience. Rearden’s mother criticizes him for being too consumed by his business and wishes he’d show more humility, but he’s annoyed that she seems unwilling to recognize how much he loves his work and the dedication he brings to it.  His wife wants a rich social life and wants him to be as interested as she is in the appearances of success. She affects a posture of progressive virtue and enlightened cosmopolitanism, but he simply can’t be bothered. His brother Philip is also a progressive and what would be referred to in today’s parlance as a social justice warrior. He’s annoying, predatory, miserable and ungrateful.  Even when Hank gives him exactly what he asks for and wishes him happiness, he remains an ungrateful cunt. All of the manipulations and machinations which surface in Hank’s family dynamic are a microcosm of the the phenomena each hero experiences as the novel progresses.

Though I understand why feminists in general are put off by Rand, I still can’t help but to find it deeply ironic. Dagny Taggart is the female badass that feminists seem to revere and she’s infinitely more believable than Katniss EverdeenImperator Furiosa or any of the many ass kicking would-be archetypes that are de rigueur nowadays. Rand made an extremely radical choice by making Dagny a railroad magnate. The feminist power fantasy heroine that’s commonplace nowadays emphasizes physical strength wildly disproportionate to body size, combat capabilities obtained without training, superhuman scientific expertise or all three (looking at you Rey). By contrast, Dagny Taggart has the courage of her convictions and willpower. She climbs through the ranks of Taggart Transcontinental on pure ambition, skill and work. She doesn’t rely on affirmative action, global feminist PR campaigns, sexual favors, nepotism or any other form of special pleading. Not only does Dagny face down the sexist attitudes that surround her with work and results, the attitudes Rand invokes feel appropriate for the time period and the industry. Unsurprisingly, contemporary feminists seem intent on promoting the idea that 50’s era attitudes are not only normal, but more widespread than ever. While this does seem to be the case for progressive politicians and celebrities, feminists continue to crusade against words and the slightest perceived transgression against womanhood. Rand gives us a heroine who seeks only to be judged by her skills and her achievement.  If only feminists would pay attention.

Through Dagny Taggart, Rand presents a refreshingly adult view of female sexuality and consent which stands in stark contrast to the neo-Victorian victimology of contemporary feminism. Rand knows that when a woman wants sex from a man, it’s not necessary for him to ask for consent at each juncture. An adult woman doesn’t demand that a man she truly wants comply with a set of consent rules imposed by government bureaucrats, feminist activists and academic elitists. Contrary to the contemporary feminists who shamelessly flog rape statistics as a psychological truncheon in order to extract compliance, shame and obedience from men, Rand emphasizes the pleasure Dagny gets from sex. Rand gives us an adult woman with full sexual agency uninhibited by religious or secular Puritanism. Feminists, on the other hand, seem intent on presenting themselves as hapless victims of a predatory patriarchy. It’s strange that feminists are the ones squashing the idea that women actively seek sexual congress and companionship while ignoring that women are always the gatekeepers of sex in a normal, healthy relationship.

Contemporary feminists also insist on rehashing the seemingly deathless talking point of an alleged stigma that’s applied towards women who have active sex lives. Rand gives us a character who simply has no fucks to give around what anyone has to say about her sex life.  On a related note, Rand is also remarkably dismissive of monogamy. She sees no moral transgression in the extramarital liaison between Dagny and Hank. It is an aspect of her worldview that sets her apart from traditional conservatives and on which the libertine wing of the Left has been strangely silent. There is more than a faint air of wish fulfillment to Dagny’s amorous associations throughout the book. Is Ayn Rand injecting her own fantasies into the novel by making Dagny the savior of civilization who gets to bang the three most powerful industrialists in the world? It’s not an unreasonable guess.

I suspect that there a couple things about Rand that really get feminist panties in a twist. First, is that she portrays feminine bliss and joy as full submission to a man. For all of Dagny’s strength and independence, Rand is pretty explicit about her willingness to submit completely to Rearden and Galt. Secondly, she’s unafraid to portray female predation, vindictiveness and pathology. Rand is unsparing in portraying Lillian Rearden as vampiric and toxic influence on Hank. That kind of emotional honesty certainly doesn’t square with a worldview which casts feminists as saints who are exempt from any kind of moral judgment.

Repeating a theme of The Fountainhead, but taking it to a whole new level, Rand sharpens her critique of academic postmodernism and the elitism and nihilism it breeds. Of the many themes in Atlas Shrugged which have only accumulated in strength and relevance, this one is certainly near the top. Behind the scenes of today’s social justice activism is a years long indoctrination campaign which prioritizes social pseudoscience, cultural Marxism, nihilism and self-negation over principles of individualism, productive work, and liberty. These forces conspire to derail the heroes and infect the thought of thought of everyone who surrounds them.

Upon completion of the John Galt Line, Jim Taggart is completely unable to take pride in the achievement. Wallowing in his pointless and narcissistic self-flagellation, he befriends a young cashier and future wife, Cherryl Brooks, for the exclusive purpose of flailing at the void and whinging over the great emptiness of it all. She indulges his pretentious blathering and condescending attitude with aplomb and grace, but it’s a foreshadowing of pitfalls to come. We discover later that Cherryl tries to remain self-possessed as Jim’s megalomania increases, but meets a tragic end.

Rand correctly attributes a religious proselytizing quality to postmodernism and hints at the spiritual role that has been assigned to it in the wake of America’s increased secularism. In his insufferable soliloquy to the infinite futility of life, Jim Taggart appeals to the “higher values” which are apparently inaccessible in the pursuit of economic gain, but can be understood by studying the solipsistic wanks of Dr. Pritchett’s hilariously and appropriately titled bit of pompous dreck, The Metaphysical Contradictions of the Universe. One needs only to spend a little time perusing the New Peer Review account on Twitter to find ample evidence that Rand’s aim was true with respect to the navel gazing pointlessness of the entire spectrum of postmodern academic studies.

It’s unlikely that any Left-leaning feminists or gender constructionists are even paying attention, but Rand even engages in some gender swapping that’s all the rage with the Tumblristas these days. The main difference is that Rand doesn’t deny biological sex differences nor does she wallow in pomo relativism. She merely acknowledges that there are general qualities found in men and women that are both biological and social norms. The fun is in observing how Rand inverts these expectations. When Jim Taggart finally marries Cherryl Brooks, she approaches Dagny and haughtily reminds her that she’s the “woman of the family now”. That’s okay, Dagny says. “I’m the man”. Boom! Suck on it, Judith Butler.

Rand made it very clear that her fiction was a vehicle for the philosophy of Objectivism. It can be seen as a distinct philosophical worldview with unique epistemological propositions. Specifically, it posits the idea that “existence exists” and all that exists is what can be perceived through sense data. Metaphysical contradictions do not nor cannot exist. There is no a prioristic knowledge about the world nor is there a spiritual reality. It is a secular, materialistic framework which is equally explicit about the objective existence of morality despite Rand’s openly atheistic convictions. What makes this especially interesting is that Rand still chose to frame morality using the language of theistic belief throughout the novel. Rand is unequivocal about the objective existence of the good and evil dichotomy. Dagny Taggart believed, for example, that “the greatest sin on earth” was to do things badly. The Objectivist conception of morality and ethics is somewhat clinical on paper, and it’s not clear how one would arrive at the exact same formulation of objective morality she specifies through a process of pure deductive reasoning. Rand never discusses the origins of morality in Atlas Shrugged nor does she sufficiently explain the existence of good and evil. Given that she is very explicit about where the moral fault lines lay throughout the novel, it seems like a foundational flaw in the overall epistemological framework. If morality itself is a metaphysical abstraction, how can one acquire certain knowledge of the objective existence of morality, let alone moral error, without appealing to some a priori external, metaphysical absolute? Even after listening to lectures from Atlas Society luminaries like David Kelley and Yaron Brook, Objectivist ethics and metaphysics strike me as questionable at best and somewhat daft at worst.

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In the Randian worldview, there are two very distinct and equally objective conceptions of moral truth. The bureaucrats, planners and looters hold just as steadfastly to their ideas that suffering is virtue just as the producers hold to their ideas of selfishness as virtue. These moral relativists are also claiming that their mandates and proclamations are objectively true. The only difference is that they require the power of the State (i.e. guns) in order to manufacture consensus. The best you can say about Randian morality is that she makes the distinction between the two worldviews very clear and asks you to make a choice. In the realms of ontology, moral psychology and ethical metaphysics, you can’t argue that there is objective error unless the behavior is being measured against some kind of metaphysical archetype or absolute. Nor am I convinced that morality is some emergent property of material reality or that the mere act of reasoning is inherently moral. Once you introduce these subjects, you have already departed from material reality. One wonders if perhaps the theists have a point when they say that atheists have generally failed to find a secular moral framework which doesn’t devolve into relativism, utilitarianism or cultish groupthink.

Yaron Brook in particular claims Ayn Rand’s ideas to be the apotheosis of enlightenment thought, but if anything, Rand is railing against a secular, enlightenment mindset run amok. The enlightenment consensus also proclaimed reason to be the ultimate engine of virtue and the French Revolution proved that disastrously false. It is the planners and bureaucrats who are able to usurp power by claiming that we live in an “enlightened age” where the altruistic values of being one’s “brother’s keeper” have prevailed. You can practically see the venomous sneer on her face as she as she heaps mounds of contempt on the idea that the mandate of a politician or a bureaucrat is equivalent to a law of nature. Objectivists undoubtedly view their creed as something beyond theistic morality, but it’s awfully difficult to see a dramatic difference between the Objectivist and the theist in the realm of moral truth.

Even more puzzling is that she speaks very openly about the existence of love, spirit and being. As the marriage between Jim Taggart and Cherryl Brooks unravels, Cherryl’s disillusionment comes from misplaced admiration while Jim’s desire for it was rooted in an overindulgence in feelings. Rand draws a clear distinction between Jim Taggart’s vision of feelings based love as an act of empty faith in contrast to Cherryl’s more noble desire for love as a true expression of affection earned through virtuous deeds. Both Cherryl and Rand consider Jim Taggart to be a parasite of the spirit and the produce of individual; someone who wants both unearned emotional and material reward. Rand is presumably making a sound point about the connection between mental health, emotional maturity and moral values, but once again, it’s not at all clear how one can distinguish these ideas as objective truths which emerge from material reality.

Adding to the credibility hurdles in Objectivism is her apparent belief in blank slate construction of selfhood which she shared with her postmodernist, neo-Marxist opponents. Rand seems to hold that people can just detach themselves from the a priori conglomeration of genetic memories, parental imprinting, emotional traumas, psychological conditions, cognitive biases, unconscious being and learned prejudices and view the world through a lens of cold reason and logic. And that’s saying nothing about IQ disparities found throughout the population. It may sound appealing, but it steps over some significant realities of the entire apparatus of the human mind. Developing the mental discipline necessary to think logically about deep philosophical questions requires not only a certain level of scholarly dedication but some willingness to wrestle with one’s own tangle of emotional proclivities and ideological biases. I suspect this may be one of many reasons people have a difficult time buying into Randian heroes. People could buy into Mr. Spock because he was a Vulcan. Accepting human characters with similar attributes may be a bridge too far.

Rand’s opponents have frequently derided Objectivism on the grounds that it is too self-centered and lacks compassion. Atlas Shrugged certainly lends credence to these charges since Objectivism seems to take a dim view of charity. The third act of the novel deals with Dagny’s arrival in Galt’s Gulch, and when Dagny suggests that Midas Mulligan give his automobile to Galt for a short usage, Galt quietly reminds Dagny that “giving” is verboten in this would-be paradise. In Galt’s Gulch, everything is earned. Rand clearly wants to draw a bright moral line around productive labor, but even the most virtuous people need assistance, care for the indigent is a genuine concern, and charity is a virtue that’s both necessary and actively cultivated. Rand is certainly correct in denigrating politicians and apparatchiks who exploit the language of altruism in order to advance political agendas, but her apparent disdain for even voluntary acts of charity seems misplaced.

This stinginess of spirit also extends into other realms of being. When Hank Rearden’s ex-wife, mother, and brother attempt to appeal to his sense of generosity and compassion as his steel mill’s economic pulse begins to seize up, none is forthcoming. They keep hoping that their emotional entreaties will get through to him, but he remains resolute in his refusal to offer even the slightest glimmer of mercy. This is entirely consistent with both Hank’s disposition and the overall framework of thought Rand has laid out, but it is also a deeply constrained and niggardly conception of humanity. Though she borders on making her heroes monochromatic in their Objectivist stoicism, Rearden refuses his family and ex-wife because of their betrayals and parasitism. The impression with which you’re left is that their posture of penitence was disingenuous and manipulative thereby justifying Hank’s cold blooded indifference. Fair enough. But Rand seems hostile to even the possibility of either genuine repentance or forgiveness. Hank is only willing to forgive if his mother encouraged him to quit and disappear. It also beggars belief that Hank didn’t harbor tons of pent up resentment and didn’t want to just vent a little. I could buy into Roark’s spartan emotional life in The Fountainhead, but giving these heroes the exact same attributes smacks of repetition and lacks basic dramatic credibility. This seems to be yet another unnecessarily impoverished Randian archetypal ideal. Even if we take the case that his family were just as duplicitous and spiritually bankrupt as Rand portrays them, sometimes people do genuinely seek absolution from those they’ve wronged. Conversely, granting forgiveness can offer just as much redemption for the person bestowing it as the person who seeks it. And sometimes, you may have to forgive the wrongs others have perpetrated if purely to achieve peace of mind because contrition is certainly not guaranteed. Not only does Objectivism seemingly disallow these possibilities, there is nothing within the framework of logical deduction that would lead anyone to seek or bestow forgiveness. Both require a certain measure of humility, and a purely rational analysis of material sense data is an insufficient epistemological model with which to develop a robust toolkit of human relations.

Objectivism has been described by some of its detractors as an atheist religion. I contend that there is validity to this charge. Objectivism’s big calling card is its claim on secular ethics. Anyone who devotes herself to the development of a set of philosophical principles which are intended to supplant the role that religion has traditionally played will undoubtedly attract a following who treat these ideas with the type of reverence normally reserved for actual religious faith. Rand denigrates and derides religious faith as a superstition which paves the way for the kind of slavish obedience to “higher authority” on which the villains preyed, but simultaneously venerates her heroes’ adherence to a higher metaphysical truth from which they drew their strength and independence. Replacing one set of theistic metaphysics with another set of allegedly secular and materialist metaphysics still constitutes an act of faith. Even as Galt’s life hangs in the balance in the novel’s climax, Wesley Mouch desperately wants him “to believe” in their cause. Like Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell, she perpetuates a false dichotomy between faith and reason by asserting that the exercise of one faculty necessarily precludes the other. Or that the process of reasoning is somehow divorced from any embedded prerational biases. The human ability to conceptualize and concretize abstract archetypes and metaphysical ideals through language is the very essence of faith. The looters of Atlas Shrugged want to dispel the idea that the individual possesses a sovereign consciousness and that the “enlightened” citizen will abdicate logic and cede the act of thinking to the experts. Rand is essentially asking you to make a leap of faith wrapped in a tautology that’s scarcely different from that of theists. Human consciousness, free will and morality exist because existence exists.

At its core, Objectivism seems an elaborate hymn to the Logos stripped of any references to the divine. I can appreciate that she set out to create a secular philosophical framework which was intended to maximize virtue, but it seems lacking. Objectivism starts from the proposition that reason alone is the engine of virtue, reality is limited to that which can be perceived by the senses, and an objective world exists independent of our perception. Rand was deeply opposed to Immanuel Kant’s contention that both morality and human cognition were filtered through an a priori structure, but on this point, she was wrong and Kant was right. Rand rejects all prerational and a prioristic knowledge, but leans on prerational and a prioristic concepts like Good and Evil. Good and Evil all by themselves are transcendent concepts which exist outside the domain of reason. By disallowing traditional, prerational and hereditary knowledge from the Objectivist framework, the Kantian criticism of pure reason stands. A collection of independent minds processing sense data divorced from any a priori, cultural, or hereditary knowledge will necessarily arrive at different conclusions.

Rand is frequently lumped in with the conservative tradition, but Objectivism all by itself sets her solidly within the tradition of post-Enlightenment rationalism, and by extension, classical liberalism. Rand’s philosophy could be viewed as a distinct branch of thought that descends from the classical liberal tradition set forth by Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Ironically, her rigid insistence on the primacy of a posteriori empirical data as the only valid source of knowledge also puts her thought in close proximity to the quasi-socialist thought of Auguste Comte. Rand’s unalloyed contempt for the intellectual class and intellectual gnosticism in general is the one, and perhaps only, strand of her worldview which aligns her with the Burkean tradition. Though it doesn’t negate the existence of objective reality, one wonders whether the revelations of quantum mechanics would have prompted doubts in Rand’s mind over the viability of pure materialism.

Rand was militant in her political neutrality and vilified conservatives and libertarians alike. Though she derided them as “hippies of the right”, Rand and Objectivism are currently and rightly identified with the more secular, minarchist wing of the libertarian movement. Despite her vehement condemnation of anarcho-capitalism, Galt’s climactic speech does, in fact, spell out Non-Aggression Principle in very explicit terms. I believe this aligns her thought at least superficially with modern libertarianism.

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that no man man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate – do you hear me? No man may start – the use of physical force against others. 

Despite the flaws in its foundational propositions, it can’t be denied that Rand reaches some sound conclusions about both the productive class and the collective “unpersoning” to which they are frequently subject. Specifically, that there is a relatively small fraction of society that does a majority of the productive labor while simultaneously being demonized as either puppet masters or vampires. As Jordan Peterson has argued, the Pareto principle applies to the distribution of workers at the top that do most of the heavy lifting. It’s the kind of thing that sends progressives into conniptions, but Galt’s speech does correctly identify the fact that progressives use the rhetoric of “equality” to pit the will of the majority against this minority. The so called 1% are convenient villains. While many are quite eager to make common cause with progressives and affect the posture of virtue that Rand righteously derides, her overall criticism of the perverse and inverted morality of progressives is dead on.

‘The public,’ to you, is whoever has failed to achieve any virtue or value, whoever achieves it, whoever provides the goods you require for your survival, ceases to be regarded as part of the public or as part of the human race. 

The cult-like environment Rand built up around herself in her later years is well documented. The reputation of modern Objectivists appears to have done little to alter this perception. Rand didn’t come across like the most jovial or happy person to be around despite her open affirmation of the pursuit of happiness as the highest human aspiration. A keen intellect for sure, but not exactly a barrel of laughs.

The knee-jerk hatred of Rand from progressives is puzzling because, at a bare minimum, one would expect that they would be sympathetic to several components of her thought. Her militant individualism, her zealous insistence on the application of the scientific method as the ultimate epistemological framework for determining reality, her materialist worldview and libertine approach towards sex set her far from anything in the conservative tradition of thought. Aside from her views on the free market and the role of the State, I see little daylight between her and the likes of Russell, Harris and Dawkins. If anything, the hatred she gets from progressives serves as confirmation that Objectivism is an untenable proposition as a complete philosophy of the world. People filter the world through a set of biases, and if anything, the very materialistic worldview she espoused has bred a fealty to political power as the font of virtue. Aside from the relentless demonization she gets in the media, the mental dissonance the mere perception of her message creates in the progressive mind likely creates too much of a barrier to warrant engagement. Because after all, how many Rand haters can actually say they’ve read her work?

The fact that Ayn Rand’s work has become a both a progressive dog whistle and lightning rod that is meant to signify the thought of all conservatives or libertarians says quite a bit about the effectiveness of leftist propaganda and the power of her work. Like Adam Smith, it’s assumed that if you’re conservative or libertarian, you automatically subscribe to everything she had to say and that your beliefs mirror hers exactly.

Above all else, Atlas Shrugged is an extended diatribe and warning against the slow encroachment of socialism in a free society. Contrary to the idiotic screeching about the alleged advent of fascism that emanates from the MSM echo chamber 24/7, totalitarianism doesn’t just spring forth from a single politician. It’s the slow accumulation of a consensus built slowly and carefully by bureaucrats and intellectuals. This book’s greatest strength is its sustained attack on the influence of the intellectual class in building a consensus for socialism. People have criticized Rand for the voluminous length of the novel as well as the lengthy philosophical expositions contained in the monologues of various characters, but there is a painstaking deliberateness in every word of this novel. Rand wants you to see and understand collectivism in every manifestation. She wants to show how each character is ultimately corrupted by it until it spreads through society like a virus and brings the gears of progress to a grinding halt.

Rand saves her heaviest artillery for the economic central planners. Upon Dagny’s return to the rapidly collapsing world after her convalescence in Galt’s Gulch, she returns to a Taggart Transcontinental laboring under the weight of the bureaucratic mandates of Directive 10-289. The regulations had throttled the normal functions of the line and plunged the operation into a spiral of unused resources, service shortages and diminishing short-term profit chasing. Dagny pried her hapless brother for any sign that he was thinking in the long-term for the company. Rand loads the cannon, and fires an ordnance directly at the legacy of John Maynard Keynes by putting his words in the mouth of hilariously named Railroad Unification bureaucrat, Cuffy Meigs. “In the long run, we’ll be dead”, he snorts. Indeed, Mr. Keynes. It’s too bad you were so dismissive of the price in human liberty your demand management models would extract for a little short term boost in GDP.

Rand clearly wants to venerate and celebrate the heroism she sees in the producer. The producers in Galt’s Gulch do not recoil or retreat from hard physical labor even if they were failed intellectuals in the world of the looters. They revel in the pride of having the opportunity to put their minds and bodies to their highest use. Work is always a virtue. Success that is honestly earned is never a vice. It’s also worth emphasizing that the crony capitalists who make common cause with the bureaucrats and planners are the ones that Rand considers villains.The caricature of Rand that’s widely circulated is that she blindly worshipped corporations and businesses while keeping her scorn limited to moochers and bureaucrats. Not so. The archetypal Randian hero stands alone and seeks only to be judged by the quality of his work.

The popular conception of Rand’s work is that she championed the pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other considerations. Anyone who actually reads Atlas Shrugged (or any of her other works for that matter) will recognize that this is a complete misrepresentation of her position. One of the key events which spurs the heroes to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the leaders of industry is their visit to an abandoned car manufacturing plant. After making their way through the squalor of the dying town which remained after the factory shuttered its operations, Hank and Dagny stumble upon the plans for a car powered by renewable energy. That’s right. Ayn Rand, the living epitome of capitalist rapacity and insensitivity, imagined a non-carbon based, renewable energy source in her book. I wonder why this little detail is overlooked in the Rand hate mill. Through this storyline, Rand simultaneously rebukes historical materialism and gives an elegant lesson on the virtues of free market innovation. When new technology is developed, it displaces old methods, increases efficiency, and frees up every individual. It is the absence of capitalism which leads to degradation, exploitation and servitude. The only thing Rand got wrong was that she didn’t anticipate that the planners would lure the masses into submission with lofty promises of an environmentally friendly techno-utopia.

It’s a theme that doesn’t figure as prominently in Atlas Shrugged as it does in The Fountainhead, but when she swings the wrecking ball at media mendacity, it’s well deserved demolition. As society grinds to a halt in the novel’s final chapters, the media remains focused on narrative while ignoring the chaos and violence happening throughout society. 

Atlas Shrugged is filled with big ideas, but there are plenty of small details that suggest that Ayn Rand’s foresight wasn’t limited to macro phenomena. As the bureaucratic bigwig Mr. Thompson tries to forestall societal collapse by attempting to negotiate with Galt, violence and civil unrest breaks out in California. Rand describes a band of communist militants led by Ma Chalmers and her “soybean cult of Orient admirers”. Ma Chalmers became a soybean mogul by securing government subsidies. If you simply swapped in “Yvette Felarca and the Antifa Soy Boys“, it would sound like a headline ripped from today’s alternative media.

Another central theme in the book that’s accumulated relevance is the corrupting influence of the State on science and the attendant appeal to scientism in political discourse. In the novel, Rearden and Taggart each have to contend with would-be scientists who spend their time idling in the government insulated confines of the National Institute of Science drawing up industry mandates wrapped in a veneer of “public good”. The bureaucrats at the National Institute of Science end up creating a deadly sonic weapon which is greeted by a great rhetorical fanfare of Unity, but for which no one will take ultimate responsibility.

Rand righteously skewers the false antagonism between commerce and science.  In Dagny’s quest to discover the inventor of the mysterious atmosphere powered motor, she seeks assistance from Institute of Science charlatan, Dr. Stadler. Stadler expresses his smug, entitled incredulity at the idea that such a brilliant mind would squander his discovery in the realm of commerce, and Dagny shoots back with a barbed retort about how he probably enjoyed living in this world. 

Near the novel’s conclusion, Stadler makes a final appeal to Galt in which he attempts to justify his alliance with the State. He pleads ineptitude at persuasion while denigrating the masses of unthinking plebs as his justification for resorting to force in order to pursue the life of scientific progress he envisioned. This monologue is simultaneously one of the most powerful critiques of modernity in Atlas Shrugged and one of its biggest contradictions. Progressives have supplanted a spiritual worldview with a purely scientific one. Rand scores another ideological point by devoting so much of the novel to this line of critique, but the very materialistic rationality she espouses is the framework that allowed the mentality of the likes of Stadler to flourish. 

She extends the critique of State influence on science into the mentality of the artist. Richard Halley is Dagny’s favorite composer, and she delights in having the opportunity to meet him in Galt’s Gulch. Once again, Rand lays waste to the belief that art and commerce are mutually exclusive.

For if there is more tragic a fool than the businessman who doesn’t know that he’s an exponent of man’s highest creative spirit – it’s the artist who thinks that the businessman is his enemy. 

Hating on Ayn Rand is a subgenre of the political Left that’s well established at this point. I have yet to read a single anti-Rand diatribe which doesn’t straw man her position or blatantly distort her message in some way. It’s also quite fashionable to be penitent about your former fascination with Rand and proclaim that you’ve “grown up and opened your eyes.” All of these mendacious, spineless, virtue signaling twats can suck on it. Rand was a serious thinker and her ideas warrant serious engagement. It seems churlish and uncharitable to focus on what she got wrong rather than the really important stuff she got completely right.

Heaping smug disdain on Rand is an easy way to score points with leftists. While I’m sure there are leftists who actually attempt to engage honestly with what she’s written and that there are surely legitimate critiques to be found, everything I’ve read is throwaway snark, a pathetic straw man or knee-jerk disdain. You don’t have to look very far to find people who bash Rand, and to be fair, there are definitely shortcomings to her writing and her philosophy.

Some criticize her prose as leaden and hamfisted and I think there’s some merit to this charge. In her defense, I propose that the world has become so accustomed to obfuscation and postmodern obscurantism, her writing seems artless by comparison. The straitjacket of Objectivism also partially accounts for this phenomenon. She has no difficulty portraying corruption and evil, but when she wants to convey transcendent acts of heroism or romantic ecstasy, it feels wooden because she has confined all of these phenomena to the realm of reason. It fails more often than not.

There is also something emotionally arid to the various philosophical monologues. The content is great, but no one I know talks like that. Maybe hardcore Objectivists do, but most people don’t. The only way the dialogues make sense is to view them as mythological Randian archetypes. Even if you set aside the leaden tone of the content, she’s also recycling the basic dramatic template she used in The Fountainhead. The forces of collectivism conspire towards one dramatic event with high stakes which sets the table for the hero to lay down a heavy philosophical lesson on morality and virtue.

The sex scene between Dagny Taggart and John Galt is a bit of a groaner, too. Rand is trying to render the heat of erotic passion using the language of Objectivist rationalism and it comes off as clunky as it sounds. It’s clear that she’s saying that sexual fulfillment emerges from mutual respect and shared values, but like everything else in the Objectivist framework, this seems too narrow a view of humanity. To suggest that pure physical attraction doesn’t play some role in sexual arousal seems daft. Besides some level of pure animal magnetism, long-term relationships which prioritize communication and intimacy also play just as big a part in sexual fulfillment as mutual respect and values parity. Rand apparently sees it through this clinical and antiseptic lens which steps over some rather significant aspects of human psychology, physiology and pair bonding.

Despite all of their flaws, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged both deserve respect. Rand was trying to provide an all encompassing philosophy for life which addressed the question of how to formulate a system secular morality. There’s a reason that religion and a religious worldview animated the great achievements of Western civilization. Mankind flourishes when he upholds ideals larger than himself. The pre-Enlightenment worldview stood atop the premise that man was striving for divinity and that the works of civilization must reflect this pursuit. Strip away that foundational view, and you’ve got a very large void in the human consciousness to fill. Unless you can fill it with a higher metaphysical ideal, the vampires of the State are going to fill it for you. I believe Ayn Rand knew this as well as anyone in history you can name whose highest aspiration was the emancipation of the individual. The fact that she fell short of meeting the challenge shouldn’t preclude an earnest engagement with the ideas she laid down in Atlas Shrugged

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Artificial Intelligence: Building the Perfect Precog

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Philip K. Dick’s dystopian short story from 1956, “The Minority Report”, presented a future police state where a collection of mutants with parapsychic abilities anticipate violent crime before it happens. Subsequently, most violent crime was eliminated, but thousands of citizens who technically hadn’t committed a single crime filled detention camps. The central speculative conceit of the story was the idea that mutants with precognitive abilities could foresee the future. Given the near absence of violent crime, their forecasts were presumed correct and the Precrime unit was accorded legitimacy by the public. Needless to say, we have yet to identify people, with or without mutations, who possess such abilities. Regardless, Dick’s vision was prescient all the same. The central idea he was exploring was the human capacity to exercise free will. If Precogs could predict violent behavior, then that suggested that human behavior was deterministic and Precogs possessed the ability to anticipate these actions.

The fact that humans possess free will has frustrated bureaucrats and central planners for ages. Despite all their best efforts to make it so, humans never behave in completely predictable ways. However, it appears as though the Silicon Valley technorati are determined to design a world which simultaneously removes human agency and lends itself towards the micromanagement of human behavior. If humans can effectively be “programmed” to behave in predictable ways, then the task of designing AI algorithms which anticipate human behavior becomes much easier. In short, artificial intelligence is starting to look like an attempt to build the perfect algorithmic Precog. More specifically, it’s starting to feel like the technorati are trying to become God by manufacturing an omniscient digital substitute.

The most explicit manifestation of the police state foretold by PKD is the facial recognition software which supposedly can detect your sexual orientation, IQ, political views and your disposition towards “criminal behavior”.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Using photos, AI will be able to identify people’s political views, whether they have high IQs, whether they are predisposed to criminal behavior, whether they have specific personality traits and many other private, personal details that could carry huge social consequences, he said.

Not only is the AI project taking on the aura of a PKD-style cyberpunk police state, it’s also starting to resemble a Logan’s Run-style dystopia. In other words, lull the unwashed masses into submission with automated comfort and convenience and you remove the opportunity for individuals to exercise agency. Automobiles, for example. People are too stupid to be trusted with driving, so let the AI take over. It’ll be fine.

And we will have no choice but to get in and hope for the best – because vehicle automation will not be a matter of choice. Stevie Wonder can see what’s coming. Automated car technology will be mandated; the SELF DRIVE Act being the preparatory groundwork. It standardizes things at the federal level; gives the federal regulatory apparat the power to nudge.

All of this begs some deep questions of where the AI project is heading and whether it’s benign or malevolent.

How much control of our lives do we want to give over to machines – and to the corporations that build and operate them?

How much control do we want to give over to machines and the corporations that build them now that the ideological biases and political allegiances of the Overlords of Silicon Valley are well known?

I am everything the religious right despises: a scientist, an atheist, a leftist (by American standards, at least), a university professor and a Frenchman. – Yann LeCun

Furthermore, to what degree are we destroying the physical work ethic by automating so much low skill labor? To what degree are we sacrificing variety and the vitality of individual innovation in favor of mass produced plenitude? Surely, there are many successes to applaud, but given the influx of an immigrant population which tilts heavily towards the low skill end of the employment spectrum, how many will have the proclivity or intelligence for high tech training? The same question applies to unemployed and underemployed working-class Americans.

Last month’s White House economic report predicted that if a job pays less than $20 an hour, there’s an 83 percent chance it will eventually be eliminated by automation.

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Elon Musk along with several other technocrats and thinkers have gone public with their reservations over the AI project. But True Believers like Ray Kurzweil would have you believe we’re headed to techno-utopia.

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When you’ve got powerful and influential industrialists and intellectuals offering such vocal opposition to the AI project, how might you help accelerate the willing acceptance of technocratic rule? By creating a religion with an AI godhead, that’s how.

Enter AI mogul and True Believer, Anthony Levandowski. Way of the Future is what he has branded this cybernetic theocracy, and at present, little is known about it. It’s already receiving a fanfare in the progressive media, so that should be an indication of the ultimate trajectory of the AI project. To quote Jung, wherever the spirit of God is extruded from our human calculations, an unconscious substitute takes its place. There is arguably nothing that ideologues crave more than unquestioned allegiance, and if one aspires towards such an end, you are going to do it by exploiting the human psyche’s capacity for faith. I think the technorati are keenly aware of this and want to pave the path while it’s still relatively early in the game.

The entire artificial intelligence debate is as old as Frankenstein. I suspect that few of us really thought that cyberpunk future would be a reality quite this quickly, but it’s here and the debate over its ramifications will intensify. Films like the Ghost in the Shell remake are starting to feel less like distant future speculations and more like statements of intent. Technology has given us a wealth of marvels, but the pursuit of the One Algorithm to Rule Them All seems more like the height of hubris and megalomania.

And researchers still have a long way to go in achieving anything that resembles human intelligence or consciousness.

There’s a certain cold blooded cynicism at the core of the AI project that strikes me as Benthamite calculus taken to its absurd and inhuman conclusion. It glorifies the notion that humanity itself can be reduced to an algorithm. It consigns our individuality to bytes of data to be managed by a cadre of unaccountable elites. While I enjoy the convenience and connectivity the information age has ushered in, I’m more than a little skeptical over what the AI project portends for the future of humanity.

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Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk.  With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance. 

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end. 

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity. 

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer.  The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.  

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism. 

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form! 

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?  

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.  

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings.  The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.  

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

On Modernism, Postmodernism and the Degradation of Western Values in Art

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Concomitant with the ascendancy of the trends themselves, conservatives and liberty-minded intellectuals ranging from Ayn Rand to Dennis Prager have inveighed against modernist and postmodernist trends in art on the grounds that it represents a degradation of aesthetic standards and, by extension, Western values. As an artist myself and one who is and has been sympathetic to these modes of expression, this is an argument to which I’ve devoted considerable thought. While I agree with the central propositions put forth by these individuals, I’m not ready to throw the modernist baby out with the bathwater. Art can and should affirm immutable, transcendent values that will carry on beyond the lifetimes of their creators. Art should also be grounded in tradition and those who pursue it should be held to the highest standards.  I propose that modernist and postmodernist trends, or what was once regarded as avant-garde, have largely supplanted any notions of Western traditionalism. Objective standards of beauty and excellence have indeed given way to a bottomless relativism. Contemporary art is a little too consumed by nihilism, ugliness and abstraction for its own sake.  If artists consume themselves with rebellion against values and standards to which no one is holding them accountable, then it’s little more than empty posturing.

Modernism was transgressive in its day because the standard bearers of traditionalism were the mainstream in art. When the impressionists departed from classical realism, it was transgressive because classical realism was the standard. The various movements that defined the 20th century saw art moving further and further away from these traditions to the point where avant-garde no longer has any meaning other than to signify a broad body of artistic expression defined by a departure from or outright annihilation of any semblance of traditionalism.

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If artists have no commitment to uphold anything sacred or beautiful and the profane and ugly are the default settings, then it reflects a rottenness in the cultural soul just as Ayn Rand asserted.

Art (including literature) is the barometer of a culture. It reflects the sum of a society’s deepest philosophical values: not its professed notions and slogans, but its actual view of man and of existence. – Ayn Rand

Art, at some level, must edify and exalt the divine spirit or some universal idea of cosmic Oneness. Without it, humanity drifts towards solipsism and nihilism. The avant-garde only has power to shock when it serves as a counterweight to an overbearance of traditionalism. In the world of art, there is literally no boundary which has not been transgressed, no sacred idol undesecrated nor profanity unspoken. We’re pretty far away from any kind of hegemony of traditionalism in the art world. Just as atheism and anarchism may be philosophically and logically untenable positions, each argument serves as a permanent counterpoint to institutional power. I believe that the avant-garde is the active attempt to concretize these philosophical positions.

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People are generally attracted to art, music and literature that has identifiable structure, steady rhythms, heroism and the pursuit of justice, themes which address relatable slices of life in memorable and clever ways, and emotional content that’s somehow uplifting. For better and worse, the avant-garde has generally eschewed these conventions. Conversely, people generally do not want to consume art that is too abstract or dwells on humanity’s tendency towards depravity.

That said, the avant-garde has produced a wealth of innovation which cannot be denied. There is a place for expressionism, abstraction and pastiche. The surreal and the grotesque have their place in a panorama of artistic expression in which the traditionally beautiful occupies a prominent position. Admittedly, avant-garde has rebel cache because it was used as both anti-communist propaganda by the CIA and was repudiated by the Nazis as “degeneracy”. Anything that scandalizes the upper crust intelligentsia, pisses off the Nazis, and gets subsidized to fight communism despite being created by artists largely sympathetic to communism is going to have some built-in appeal. The avant-garde’s associations with dubious ideologies should not be ignored, but that should not preclude exploration or reevaluation of the ideas either.

Yves Tanguy

From my perspective, the avant-garde only occurs as such in proportion to the degree to which the tradition from which it departs is recognizable. Oftentimes, the most innovative artists walk a fine line between tradition and modernism and find a way to reconcile seemingly disparate aesthetics.

The critics of the avant-garde have a point. If nothing else, the central proposition that animates nearly every avant-garde movement is the departure from objective reality.  As much as I am supportive of a revival of classical standards in art, I’m equally enthusiastic about the renewed vitality it will bring to the avant-garde.

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Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason

The period of European history known as The Enlightenment was the period in which many of the hallowed values that define classical liberalism were canonized. Among these values were constitutionalism, freedom of speech, and most importantly, separation of church and state. Thomas Paine remains one of the most celebrated exponents of liberal thought. Capping off a trifecta of canonical liberal texts which included Common Sense and Rights of Man, The Age of Reason represents Paine’s defense of freedom of conscience in matters of faith. More specifically, this book is a rejection of religious institutions and an attack on the historicity of the Bible, divine revelation and miracles. Paine is explicit about his belief in God and is affirming deism, but the arguments he sets forth are scarcely different from those we hear from contemporary religious skeptics. It is, in effect, a work of proto-atheism. It’s a very short hop from Paine’s presumed skepticism and mind numbing pedantry to Dawkins and Hitchens. 

Published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807, The Age of Reason rattled a few cages due to the perceived proximity to French Jacobinism. Like Voltaire, Paine’s writing was a sort of intellectual punk rock of its day. Despite this reputation for being a work of heresy, it is an exceedingly tedious and tendentious treatise. The Age of Reason, both the book and the broader Enlightenment consensus are perhaps slightly overrated. Common Sense might have helped build a consensus for the American Revolution, but Paine wasn’t necessarily held in high esteem by some of the Founders. This book opens a window of insight on why this might be so. The elevation of reason as the principle method by which we obtain knowledge and derive universal principles has arguably laid a foundation for moral relativism and a purely materialistic view of the world.

I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine. – John Adams on Thomas Paine

Perhaps more significantly, it also appears to be a stepping stone on the pathway to scientism. He openly asserts that the study of natural philosophy, mathematics and mechanical science is the “true theology”. This conflation of moral virtue with the pursuit of scientific discovery is essentially an article of faith for progressives and atheists alike. The laws of the natural world are discovered. How the human mind chooses to apply these discoveries is up for grabs. This pursuit may be moral and ethical, but it may be completely malevolent. The methods by which data is gathered may be ethical or they may be cherry picked in order to confirm a bias or a preconceived conclusion. Whether it’s the first time such criticisms and claims have been committed to print I cannot say, but The Age of Reason cements a perception of antagonism between science and faith that persists to this day.

The first section is essentially the entire blueprint for modern atheism with one key difference: Paine actually believes in God. This difference is crucial, but every criticism he levels at Christian belief can be found in the rhetorical bedrock of every modern atheist and agnostic from Harris to Tyson. His contention is that the biblical teachings of belief in miracles, resurrection, the Holy Trinity and young earth creationism have engendered an antipathy towards science and paved a path for superstition over reason. He claims that this proliferation of superstitious belief has bred an open hostility to scientific advancement; a claim which is not borne out by recent polling of the scientific community. The absence of any specific examples does not lend credibility to the claim, but this omission didn’t seem to prevent the perception from spreading.

But this, the supporters or partizans of the Christian system, as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed, and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors. 

In the subsequent section, Paine proceeds to dissect the first six books of the Old Testament in painstaking detail. He lays out a trove of information which he claims falsifies the historicity of the books. It’s rather tedious stuff. When he finally gets to discussing his fondness for the Book of Job, it becomes apparent that perhaps his interpretation of the remaining texts is uncharitable and narrow. He explains why it is a text he holds in high esteem because of the lessons it imparts on human suffering and the striving towards contentment. More importantly, he is perhaps missing the fact that the Bible is not necessarily designed to impart historical knowledge, but that it represents hundreds of years of mankind striving to rise above its animal nature and reach for some ideal of divine perfection.

The one argument that sets this book apart from atheist orthodoxy is Paine’s unequivocal belief in the connection between deistic faith and the objective existence of moral truth. This also appears to be a point of agreement between Kant and Paine since Kant argued that you needed an a priori cognitive structure through which to process sense data. 

In the final section, he takes a sledgehammer to the New Testament by claiming that “Christianity only produces atheists and fanatics”, but history has proven this contention false. Worst of all, his view of the French Revolution seems deeply ahistorical. He contends that the intolerance of the Church had transferred into the realm of politics which is the exact opposite of reality. It was, in fact, secular fanaticism which culminated in the establishment of a violent, state sponsored secular religion known as the Cult of Reason. The magnitude of Jacobin violence meted out to the Church and the Christian faith during The Reign of Terror is staggering.

Paine’s criticisms sound scarcely different from the generic attacks on “religion” that one would find on an atheist meme or a Bill Maher rant. Ironically, Paine considers the New Testament itself as a work of atheism. I’m not sure how much value the Bible has for the individual reading it in order to find historical or chronological error and contradiction. The Bible was apparently written over a span of approximately 1500 years. The individuals who wrote the scriptures and the process of collecting these works is indeed a subject worthy of scrutiny. However, I suggest that these concerns are secondary to the larger significance to human moral psychology. If one were to take a charitable view, the Bible could be viewed as a collection of works which reveals man striving for metaphysical transcendence. They are designed to reveal man struggling to articulate things beyond what his mind can know or obtain solely through the accumulation of sense data. It is meant to form the bedrock through which knowledge is assimilated so that the works of man would express the divine ideal. Paine’s exercise feels like a wrong turn.

While I can certainly appreciate that this work was transgressive in its day and probably helped pave the way for a multiplicity of views on faith both benign and malevolent, I’m strongly inclined to think that perhaps it planted the seed of destruction for Reason itself. The human capacity for reason and the discipline of logic are high level functions of the human mind. These abilities are cultivated and are certainly not evenly distributed throughout the population. The human capacity for morality, which is itself a form of faith, supersedes any concern for logic or reason. When it comes to perceptions of moral imperatives, reason is often utterly ineffectual as a mode of persuasion. The compulsion to confirm existing biases and affirm tribal alliances nullifies the possibility of reasoned debate or analysis. Moreover, the progressive Left has essentially hijacked scientific reasoning and used it as a substitute for ideological moralizing in a manner similar to Paine, but less explicit. Humanity is clearly wired for faith of some kind.  If this capacity isn’t funneled into some kind of theism or, at minimum, belief in transcendent moral absolutes, it tends to be transferred to the secular equivalent of Ultimate Authority: the State. To what extent does the capacity for reason even enter the dialogue when morality has been ceded to the secular priesthood? As current events attest, not much, if at all. 

The Age of Reason offers very little that’s meaningful or relevant to the world today. The distinctions between science and morality have been steamrolled and the floodgates of atheism have been opened since its publication. I’d argue there’s nothing in the Christian faith or the Bible that hasn’t been picked apart a thousand times. The Christian faith has already endured every criticism that can be made, and it still ended up producing the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. So free in fact, that the tools of Reason have been deployed to undermine the theological foundations of the West just as Nietzsche feared. The battle for Western civilization in which we’re currently engaged has precipitated a reappraisal and reaffirmation of the ideas at its core. Paine was correct to assert the existence of moral truth, but his dismissal of the broader metaphysical significance of scripture was perhaps a bit cavalier and hubristic. If any faith could use some more of Thomas Paine’s questioning spirit in 2017, it’s Islam.

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

Miss Sloane (2016)

Risible, idiotic, ludicrous, cartoonish, and deeply partisan are a few of words that come to mind in summarizing this utterly loathsome Jessica Chastain vehicle, Miss Sloane

As the titular character, Chastain portrays yet another progressive, feminist power fantasy packaged as an indictment of the lobbying industry. Both the film and the character can be best described as an attempt to fuse Annette Bening’s principled lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade, with the ruthlessness of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. Exhibiting a typically hyperbolic level of comic hysteria, would-be moral indignation and faux virtue that are standard features of Hollywood agitprop, the film presents Elizabeth Sloane as a lone, fearless crusader who dares to challenge the gun lobby, but pays a steep price. 

Like The Big Short, the film is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it presents the lobbying industry and the politicians they serve locked in a symbiotic Gordian Knot of compromised ethics. The lobbyists are unprincipled mercenaries who simply work for the highest bidder, and the politicians are equally craven, self-interested careerists who are driven by the vagaries of public sentiment. On the other, it is most definitely portraying one side of the political equation as ultimately principled.  Sloane enters this snake pit of moral relativism and plays the game on its own terms in order to fulfill one unassailable, unalloyed moral good: gun control.  

The film opens with Elizabeth Sloane being prepped for a congressional hearing which has been convened to investigate her possible violations of Senate Ethics Rules. Under heavy questioning from John Lithgow’s laughable caricature, Congressman Ron Sperling, our would-be Machiavellian heroine lays out her credo:

Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.

The film flashes back to the meeting which took place seven months prior to this hearing which set the chain of events in motion. The senior partners of her firm set her up with the head of the most powerful gun rights organization in the country. They recognize the deficit in appeal their cause has with women. Since she never gets tired of winning, they want Elizabeth Sloane to Make Gun Ownership Great Again for the female electorate. Sloane may be a mercenary, but she has SOME PRINCIPLES, dammit! She’s not going to just take any paycheck. She laughs in his face, and defects to the competitor firm with her cadre of #WOKE, #DIVERSE junior associate millennials in tow. 

With steely resolve, Elizabeth orchestrates a strategy to win the passage of the Heaton-Harris Amendment which would mandate background checks for gun purchases. This eventually leads her to a televised debate with her former colleague arguing the merits of the bill. This is where the film cudgels you over the skull with its progressive editorial. The debate is a cringe inducing piece of propaganda which portrays Sloane carving her opposition to pieces, overwhelming him with seemingly airtight logic, and unequivocally holding the appearance of the moral high ground.  As Pat Connors, Michael Stuhlbarg has the dubious distinction of being this week’s hapless conservatard who manages to bypass every substantive argument with a facile variation on MUH CONSTITUTION. Chastain takes obvious pleasure in rebutting every claim with ever escalating moral indignation as her #WOKE team cheers on the brutal #PWNAGE she dispenses. 

The fact that the progressive Left are the true moral and constitutional relativists who want to criminalize gun ownership is not exactly a secret. Every single one of Sloane’s rebuttals reveals the calculating sophistry that the Left has used to erode the perception of inviolability the Bill of Rights was meant to convey. It’s just like getting a driver’s license, and no one thinks drivers license mandates have destroyed individual liberty!  It’s just like fugu chefs in Japan who have to train for seven years!  We’re living in a different world from the one in which the Founders lived!  Get #WOKE, conservatards!


The Bill of Rights was, in fact, meant to delineate the boundary of individual liberty over which the government may not trespass. The Second Amendment follows the First because it is an inherent recognition of the fragility of liberty. The 2A places the responsibility of upholding liberty in the hands of every citizen. It is a recognition that stewardship of liberty cannot even be fully entrusted to the nation state. It is not a license for homicide. No quantity of laws will ever deter the homicidal maniac from committing homicide. No quantity of bureaucratic oversight has ever prevented a single act of mass gun homicide. If laws make the purchase of firearms too onerous, it only makes a bigger black market for firearms. It also incentivizes the sociopaths to enter into government and law enforcement positions so they can enjoy the cover of legitimacy. Gun control simply consolidates gun ownership in the hands of the State layered over with a vain hope that it will affect moral choices. The Left’s entire case is a gigantic appeal to emotion, and none of this enters Stuhlbarg’s argument.  He just gets to be Sloane’s intellectual roadkill in order to serve the greater goal of confirming the bias of the audience.  
The film tries to add some complexity by showing the amphetamine popping Sloane going off script during the debate. In a heated moment, she likens the defense of the 2A to being analogous to Christian opposition to gay rights. The #WOKE millenials are left slackjawed when she reveals that her colleague, Esme Manucharian, was a survivor of a deadly school shooting without consulting her beforehand.  Once Esme is outed, she becomes the public face for gun control. The tables turn when her life is threatened by a paranoid gun nut, but she is saved by a civilian who was carrying a legal concealed firearm. Good guy with a gun stops bad guy with a gun. The film tries to present this citizen vigilante as a national hero who is showered with media coverage, BUT THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN THE REAL WORLD NO MATTER HOW OFTEN IT HAPPENS. 

Elizabeth Sloane can be added to the ever growing list of feminist fantasy stereotypes. She’s driven, but she’s ultimately propelled by a sense of moral certitude. Her moral relativism is justified because she’s striving to uphold a higher moral absolute. She’s willing to allow her hypocrisy to be exposed only so she can expose the hypocrisy of The System©. And of course, real female power reaches its true apotheosis by Reforming Democracy®.

It’s also another example of feminism’s supremacist tendencies by portraying her as better than all of the male characters at every level. Even if Elizabeth Sloane is morally compromised in some way, she’s still better and smarter than every man in the film. She’s can even detach the need for emotional fulfillment from sex! She doesn’t need no m*n! 

Miss Sloane is just the latest installment of Hollywood’s partisan political agenda and pathological desire to flatter progressive pretensions of moral and intellectual superiority.  It undoubtedly sees itself as a rebuke to The System©, but I doubt that anyone outside the media echo chamber and the target audience sees it that way. 

Dark City (1998)

Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterpiece, Dark City, may draw easy comparisons to The Matrix, but it deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Both films deal with the idea that there is a deeper reality beyond material appearances as well as the possibility that there are malevolent forces actively shaping your perception. Both films also give you a protagonist who cracks the code of the reality with his own powers which threatens the controlled order of the world he inhabits. While The Matrix was ultimately a story of the Chosen One who liberates the huddled remains of humanity, Dark City is a story of a man who discovers that the essence of his humanity that could not be controlled made him stronger than his captors. 

Playing the role of John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell awakens in a bathtub suffering from amnesia. To his dismay, he discovers a woman brutally murdered lying on the floor of his bedroom. Fleeing the scene in a panic after receiving a phone call from a mysterious Doctor Schreber, he barely escapes discovery from a trio of ghoulish looking beings known as The Strangers. When the clock strikes midnight, the entire city stops and all its inhabitants fall into a state of hypnosis except Murdoch. This state of hypnosis is induced by The Strangers using a psychokinetic power called “tuning” which allows them to reshape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Pursued simultaneously by Inspector Frank Bumstead under suspicion of multiple murders, Murdoch is able to escape the clutches of The Strangers by tapping into his own ability to tune. Murdoch tries to recover his memories by reaching out to his torch singer wife, Emma. Murdoch’s ability to tune threatens the control The Strangers exert on the citizens of Dark City.  He seeks to return to Shell Beach, the beachside town he believes to be his home, and unravel the mystery of Dark City before The Strangers catch up with him. 

Dark City belongs to a venerable tradition of SF films which explores the essence of identity, free will versus determinism, the effect of time and memory, and the value of our connection to the past. Given the escalating tensions in neuroscience over the role of biological factors and the nature of consciousness itself, Dark City’s emphasis on the latter theme places it a notch above The Matrix. Through tuning, The Strangers possess the ability to shape time and space, but they imprint people with stolen memories in order to discover what makes humans tick. The Strangers’ mentality can be viewed as a classic representation of collectivist materialism. With Doctor Schreber’s coerced assistance, they distill human experience into chemical combinations. Despite their apparent superiority, The Strangers cling doggedly to the belief that by continuously reshaping the physical, social, and even biochemical conditions, they can mold humanity to fit their desired ends. 

The Strangers’ manipulations of reality also serve as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which globalists, social scientists, and technocrats have intervened in human affairs in the present world. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the existence of a sovereign individual consciousness and the ability to exercise free will, but it shows you how difficult it is to develop an awareness of Self. Not only does Murdoch struggle to recover his connection to his own past, he must work equally hard to rip away the veil of deception that has been carefully constructed all around him.

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

The Strangers are one of the most chilling representations of an alien dictatorship I’ve seen on film. They share a collective consciousness, but they have no individuality. It is a society of abject servitude to the hive mind. They possess advanced scientific knowledge, but they’re so imprisoned by scientific thinking, they’re completely insensitive to the ways they’re destroying the lives of their subjects. Morality and ethics are absent from their existence. 

In contrast to the messianic nature of Neo and his quest in The Matrix, Murdoch’s heroism is purely the result of his desire to attain meaning and discover the truth of reality. By asserting his individuality and claiming ownership of his own thoughts, it had a ripple effect in the other characters. He instinctively knows that the love he shared with his wife and his connection to Shell Beach were the only things that gave his life meaning and purpose. 

Stylistically, Dark City is a visual tour de force. The film effortlessly updates Metropolis‘ German expressionism with a lush 90’s gothic film noir chic. The overall color palette is suffused with black and other dark tones, but it is not devoid of rich, vivid colors. Visual, stylistic, and thematic references to its forebears abound. Vertigo, Blade Runner, City of Lost Children, Total Recall, and The Crow can all be detected within Dark City’s DNA. 

Dark City is a film which borrows very liberally from other films, but stands alone on its own terms. We continue debate the acquisition of truth amidst a sea of self-interested media elites, the extent to which we’re influenced by our past positively or negatively, the consequences of the endless parade of would-be social scientists peddling postmodern abstraction as policy, what role neuroscience plays in shaping happiness, and what quantum mechanics suggests about human consciousness. Dark City’s themes speak to each of these issues, and its relevance has grown in proportion. Not only does it stand very tall in the SF cinematic canon, but in the annals of all film. 

Voltaire: Candide

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today.  In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.

With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous.  Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.

Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls. 

Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.

Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye.  Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake?  Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.

Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother.  On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate.  It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.

Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.

But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral.  I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.

Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide.  In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.

When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.

Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.

Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public.  Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed.  Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.

Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism.  All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.

While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan.  Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.