15 July 2011

OCON 2011

We returned from this year’s Objectivist Conferences a few days ago, so here I will post a few notes about it. I had a really wonderful time. The conference somehow seemed a little more subdued than the last OCON we attended (Boston, 2009), an atmosphere Lynne marked even more than I did, but it was still very inspiring and informative for me.

Yaron Brook set the theme—actually two themes—in his opening lecture: Objectivism is both radical and hard. This is not news, of course, but the two adjectives, radical and hard, kept resurfacing during the lectures. Ayn Rand’s discoveries may seem like common sense—indeed, my reaction, when I first devoured the novels and the non-fiction almost thirty years ago, was that it all seemed so obvious—but in fact the material is difficult and takes years to fully integrate. (I am nowhere near having fully integrated the material myself.) Ayn Rand did all the heavy lifting, but good scholarship is needed today: books, speakers, university positions, etc. And because we are badly outnumbered by the bad guys (i.e. collectivists, statists, and mystics), we who fight for reason and freedom must be excellent. We need to be fighters, to have fire in the belly, to be unafraid.

My “takeaway” from the conference is this. To flourish in life, it is enough to be right in my personal life. However, if I am to participate in a change in the culture—if I am to assist in arresting and reversing the momentum of the civilized world as it hurtles toward statism—it is not enough to simply be right. I must be able to demonstrate and convey the rightness of reason and rational self-interest. The task is nothing short of reversing at least two thousand years of moral inertia. I’ve been living my life and working hard at my job, but I need to accomplish more on this change-the-culture front.

One conference attendee asked an interesting question. Paraphrasing, it went something like this: “It has been said that great ideas are first ignored, then ridiculed, then opposed, then accepted. Where in this progression are we [i.e. Objectivism] now?” It seems pretty clear to me that we are well past the “ignored” stage and have moved into the “ridiculed” stage, perhaps even to the “opposed” stage. An increasing portion of the attention Ayn Rand is getting is serious; her ideas are often disagreed with, but they are represented more or less correctly quite often. This is tremendous progress. Naturally, there still exists an enormous hostility to Rand among certain mentalities, both on the left and the right, who reserve their most revolting vitriol for the ideas that they seem to recognize are the greatest threat to their irrationality (indeed, they are correct on this count), but it has an increasing tone of desperation. 


On Independence Day, John Ridpath did a moving reading of Thomas Jefferson’s last letter, which was written in June 1826. (If you’ve ever heard Ridpath speak, you know how dramatic his deep, sonorous voice is.) The ailing Jefferson was writing to regretfully decline an invitation to attend a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence. The whole letter is amazing, and it includes this gem: 

May it [i.e. the Declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be . . . the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves . . . All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.[1]



In his lecture, “Individual Rights and Health Care Reform: A Patient’s Perspective,” John David Lewis shared his personal experiences that he had with a team of doctors during a recent serious illness, linking his observations to the wider ideas of freedom and individual rights. It is no surprise that doctors generally exhibit an extraordinary orientation to reality, a “deeply and profoundly Aristotelian approach,” as Dr. Lewis put it. The subjugation of doctors, other health care professionals, and patients to Washington bureaucrats is an evil that is almost too monstrous to fathom. Government rules are placed between minds and reality; they are obstructions, thwarting men’s abilities to judge and act. Government intervention is nothing short of an attack on life itself.


I believe the gem of the conference for me was Thomas Shoebotham’s wonderful set of lectures, “Bach and the 19th Century.” Shoebotham covered Bach’s background and major influences, such as Buxtehude and Pachelbel, as well as the foreign influences from Italy (Corelli and Vivaldi) and France (Lully and Rameau). He reviewed some technical material—counterpoint and fugue, the chaconne, the passacaglia, and the German chorale—then traced the influence that Bach’s music had on other composers, from Beethoven and Mozart, to Mendelssohn (who almost single-handedly revived Bach’s music from popular obscurity), to Chopin, Brahms, and Wagner. He made a lot of fascinating connections, and it was thrilling and very instructive to hear Shoebotham play excerpts on piano and cello, both instruments of which he plays quite proficiently.


In “The Culture of ‘Package-Dealing’,” Peter Schwartz lectured upon the topic of anti-concepts, which are conceptual “package deals” that have the purpose of destroying legitimate concepts. They function by the implicit substitution of essentials by non-essentials. Classification by non-essential properties paralyses an unwitting mind, obstructing his ability to distinguish the proper referents to a concept from improper ones, and crucially, impairing his ability to identify what ought to be regarded as essential. 

A few examples that were given in the lecture will illustrate the idea. The term “judgmentalism,” for instance, obliterates rational judgment; all judgment, including that which is warranted and rational, is condemned under the sweeping rule that “one must not judge.” The concept of a “stakeholder” destroys that of a shareholder, diluting ownership—actual property rights—with the idea that many others have claims to “a piece of the pie.” The word “simplistic” obliterates principled thinking; the practice of integrating information and identifying fundamentals, as opposed to holding all facts as isolated and unrelated, is thus derided as unjustified over-simplification. The term “divisive” silences principled arguments against mainstream irrational ideas (e.g. multiculturalism).

And of course, the archetype of package deals is selfishness. In this case, a new word was not coined, but a new meaning supplanted the proper one. Selfishness should mean a rational and moral concern for one’s own life and values; it is a virtue. But today, selfishness has come to mean “a pursuit of desires at the expense of others.” This is a disastrous package deal. It lumps together the honest man who works for a living with the thug who picks pockets in a crowd. It blurs the distinction between the entrepreneur who opens a bottle of champagne to celebrate a success and the junkie who shoot heroin to temporarily satisfy an urge to escape his miserable existence. The life-sustaining virtue of long range self-interest is thus replaced by the notion that selfishness is hedonistic or predatory, which serves the purpose of destroying the virtue.


Perhaps the most challenging and rewarding class I took was Jason Rheins course, “The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (part 2): Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Rheins pointed out that it is Kant more than anybody else who in his ethics has influenced subsequent intellectuals. Rheins did an excellent job covering a lot of difficult material in only three sessions: Kant’s distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge and the epistemological division of the numenal and the phenomenal; the derivation of morality from “practical reason”; a contrast of Kant’s deontological (duty-based) ethics with axiological (value-based) ethics; the concepts of acting from duty as opposed to in accordance with duty, and the resulting moral significance of each; the distinction between moral imperatives that Kant called “hypothetical” from those he called “categorical”; and the “formula for humanity,” the “highest good.” I had had a basic idea of some of this material before, but this course provided a lot of clarification and depth.


The one optional class that Lynne and I took together was John David Lewis’ course, “The History of Ancient Greece: The Early Fourth Century.” (We love Dr. Lewis. He is one of the most brilliant, impassioned, and courageous intellectuals alive today—a hero worthy of the Greeks that he knows so thoroughly. He greeted us warmly even though he hadn’t seen us in two years.) The material he covered was quite interesting—I know a fair amount about the 5th century BC, but I was inclined to regard the 4th century as nothing but a decline for Greece, which is a rather conventional viewpoint. Dr. Lewis sees this as a profound mistake, saying he can “make a good case that the 4th century has it hands down over the 5th!” When the facts are integrated properly, a few important ideas emerge. For one thing, Athens recovered rapidly after the Peloponnesian War, returning to prosperity—and crucially, when it constructed a second Athenian League, it faced and solved many of the problems that had plagued its first attempt with the Delian League in the previous century. (The Athenians did not have the concept of individual rights, of course, but many of their considerations struck remarkably close to a respect for freedom.) This period also saw the decline of statist Sparta, as its façade of invincibility—the “Spartan mirage”—crumbled to expose a rotten core. The Spartan decline corresponded to an ascendancy of Thebes, the great general Epaminondas, and the dramatic liberation of Messenia in 369 BC.

The tale is ultimately tragic, however. The Greeks never quite solved the federalist problem; that is, they never quite resolved the desire for autonomia—autonomy and independence for the polis—with the practical benefits of a joint defense for all of Greece. This left them vulnerable for what was to come: the rise of Macedonia.


Lynne and I both really enjoyed the unexpected surprise of meeting Luc Travers, a teacher at Van Damme Academy, and author of the book, Touching the Art. (Lynne has already read the book, and I have now moved it closer to the top of my pile!) Travers is infectiously enthusiastic, and he generously invited our daughters to his brief presentation (which turned into a standing-room-only performance) of his approach to art, which we all enjoyed.


John Allison, who is one of the indefatigable champions of Objectivism and former chairman and CEO of BB&T, presented a lecture on “Teamwork and Independence,” which presented a view that is undoubtedly unconventional in the business world. In essence, Allison refuted the pat expression, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” (Those are my words, not Allison’s.) His system is meritorious, rewarding independent thinking, honesty, and productivity.


Another important point for me to keep in mind, which came out in a lecture Dr. Brook and Don Watkins presented called “”The End of Big Government,” is that it is essential to differentiate capitalism from the mixed economy we have today. It is obvious to Objectivists that the mixed economy is not capitalism, but the general public is likely to believe it is, particularly since that is what they are told by their teachers and the news media.

It is thus crucial to demonstrate the win-win nature of unfettered capitalism and the trader principle. And of course, the deeper message is the morality of capitalism; at its root is the protection of individual rights, the elimination of initiated physical force in human relationships, the selfish pursuit of happiness for every person. After all, as Dr. Brook said, “We are the heirs of the Enlightenment.”


I took Harry Binswanger’s class, “Principles,” which had a lot of challenging material that it will take me a while to mentally “chew” on. The basic issue regarding principled thinking is that of fundamentality, which is established from the perspective of hierarchical causal (and, I believe, logical) dependencies. Principles are vital tools of cognition; they offer a condensed view of all consequences to particular actions, and thus permit long-range thinking.

I would guess that much of Dr. Binswanger’s presentation is based upon material from his forthcoming book, which is still in the editing stage, so I am very much looking forward to its appearance. 


One final note on the conference: I would be remiss not to mention the great time we had meeting some old friends and some new friends. On every morning but one, Lynne and I hit the hotel gym at oh-six-hundred hours, where we met two or three friends to do some CrossFit training. We had the pleasure of making some new acquaintances at an HBL get-together, had some nice conversations while milling about in the hotel lobby, and were thrilled to have lunch and dinner with some friends that we had previously only known online. We even went salsa dancing with a few friends one evening, which ended with a limousine ride back to the hotel. (I had fun, though I admit the deepest conceivable incompetence in salsa dancing, not to mention an utter inability to hear a single word of conversation in the din.)


1. “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman,” Monticello, June 24, 1826, Library of Congress, “http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/rcwltr.html”.

04 July 2011

Independence Day 2011

To the Founding Fathers, there was no authority higher than the individual mind, not King George, not God, not society. Reason, wrote Ethan Allen, is "the only oracle of man," and Thomas Jefferson advised us to "fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God." That is the meaning of independence: trust in your own judgment, in reason; do not sacrifice your mind to the state, the church, the race, the nation, or your neighbors.[1]

This excerpt from an article Michael Berliner wrote a couple of years ago reminds us how radical were the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Shamefully, these ideas are nearly as radical (and possibly more so) now as they were then, a testament to how much philosophical ground has been lost in the last century or so. If we are to save the country in which freedom has been most dearly earned, we must convince Americans to "question with boldness" the overwhelming demands to accept sacrifice as noble and moral, and to pursue their own selfish interests, their own happiness, with the confidence that it is right to do so.

This I address to the Americans of the world, where you may still be found: Happy Independence Day.


Michael Berliner, "Put the Independence Back in Independence Day,"1 Jul 2009, Capitalism Magazine, "http://www.capitalismmagazine.com/culture/5217-put-the.html".

Image from capmag.com.