Friday, April 15, 2011

Selfishness wins

There's been a lot of talk lately about the new book by Rob Bell, Love Wins. If you live outside of the Bible belt and/or don't have friends who are evangelical Christians, you may not have noticed. If you're one of those who has heard of the book but simply hasn't read it, here's the lowdown: Rob Bell believes in hell, and his detractors are in it. If you want, you can skip the rest of his book and just read Chapter 7 for clarification. I'm sure Bell would be too gracious to say what I just said in so many words, but his interpretation of the story of the Prodigal Son speaks for itself.

The reason I bring this up is that the Rob Bell controversy shows just how judgmental some Christians can be. Many seem to hate Bell's book, whether they've read it or not, for the simple reason that they truly can't stand the idea that they might have to stop denouncing and excluding others. After all, if you're one of God's people, there's got to be somebody who's not, or what's the point, right?

As for me, I try very hard not to be judgmental. That's how you know that for me to write a post like this one, my back has to be really up against the wall. If I'm going to claim publicly that there are people around who seem determined to oppose, undermine and destroy everything the Christian religion stands for, I need some serious provocation, because I just don't say things like that. But then there's Paul Ryan, and I guess he brings out the worst in me.

Here is an article from Newsweek that makes it clear just where the inspiration for Ryan's budget is coming from. Ayn Rand.

If you're not aware of this, Rand, whom Ryan reads "religiously," deliberately turned traditional ethics on its head. Instead of believing that all people receive their life from a common creator and hence have obligations to each other, she avowed that there is no God and hence nothing beyond self-interest to pursue. Instead of affirming that it is the duty of the strong to help the weak, she saw the strong as virtuous and the weak as lazy and ineffectual. The desire to help others - what is commonly known as altruism - was to her the original sin of human society. The strong and powerful owe nothing to anything beyond themselves, because they are natural heroes. The poor are evolutionary misfits, and encouraging them to believe that they are anything else is a disservice to society and will only lead to more suffering in the future. Better to let them starve and die now than continue to reproduce.

If you think you recognize the set of beliefs that Rand is contradicting, you've either read the Gospels and the Old Testament prophets or internalized much of their ethical content. The ideas that the strong should help the weak, that no-one is righteous in and of his or herself, and that we owe respect and love to others, including strangers, are the basis of the Judeo-Christian worldview. If you're a practicing Christian or an observant Jew, you're more or less supposed to practice those things. They're the foundation of our laws and our traditions of justice, which is why most modern people believe them regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof. Many would even suggest that this positive ethical content is the only thing worth salvaging from the history of Western religion. That's what I was brought up to believe, and the only reason I started going to church was because I needed to get back to the source. Acknowledging how broadly accepted these ideas are is what has made me the broad-minded person that I aspire to be.

And then there's Congressman Ryan. What I hope the Newsweek article makes clear is that his worldview, which inspired his much-touted, supposedly "courageous" budget plan, is based on a conscious, deliberate rejection of everything I just described. He has a coherent worldview all right, but it is the polar opposite of Judeo-Christian ethics. That's why I can say with absolute conviction that Ryan is waging a war on everything the Christian religion stands for. There is no point of contact whatsoever. What Christianity affirms, Ryan rejects. What Christianity rejects, Ryan affirms.

What makes this whole business so frankly sad is that, as the Newsweek article makes clear, Ryan's ideas, which are Ayn Rand's, are also the ideas that have motivated the Tea Party and brought it to a position of power, and there is a broad intersection between the membership of the Tea Party and that of the so-called Christian right. I really want to take the charitable interpretation and assume that those who belong to both groups simply don't understand where this whole cluster of ideas is coming from. I want to do this because there are people I like and respect who belong to both groups. I do hope that some of them are reading this - because if you are, NOW YOU KNOW!!


  1. Robin wrote:
    "The poor are evolutionary misfits, and encouraging them to believe that they are anything else is a disservice to society and will only lead to more suffering in the future. Better to let them starve and die now than continue to reproduce."


    "At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

    "Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

    "Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

    "And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

    "They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

    "The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

    "Both very busy, sir."

    "Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

    "Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

    "Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

    "You wish to be anonymous?"

    "I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

    "Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

    "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

    Charles Dickens

  2. When I have argued for broader government subsidy of healthcare, I've gotten the response that all the weak, sick disabled and hard-working poor people, who often just have common chronic diseases, should be left to die from their untreated illnesses. That's because "normal" middle-class people shouldn't be required to subsidize their crummy little lives. I find this sentiment shocking.

    I imagine I'm seeing the same dynamic as when "normal" middle-class Europeans believed that “weak, abnormal, crummy little people” should die.

    Like you, I try hard not to be judgmental. I am just extremely cynical. We're all bad to the bone although, mercifully, we aren't aware of it mostly. Pelosi,'s all the same to me. There's no point in hating on anybody as far as I’m concerned. The anger I feel is a general plea to "Stop! STOP! Don't hurt my country and culture any more!"

    Like you, I draw closer to the source of my cultural and political values. The Creator gave us all a drive to create many things — among them are justice and doing good to all people. Watching people destroy rather than create is horrifying. It’s unnatural. When the destroyer has political power, it’s epic.

  3. True enough, Nanette. As I mentioned in my recent post on McCarthyism, that power has been abused in our country more severely, and more recently, than a lot of people realize. That's why I need to affirm that my cousin Richard Lippman, who sympathized with Soviet Russia because of the injustices he saw in America, was a patriotic American as well. (He served as a Major in the US Army during WWII, and was rewarded for his service by being blacklisted from his own profession in the next decade.) American society is, and always has been, a huge patchwork of differing views and ideals. If we can't live with that reality now, we're in trouble.

  4. It seems that Ayn Rand's position, as you've stated it here, is both morally and scientifically bankrupt. For many scientists (perhaps most?) altruism is an evolutionary development that helps individuals and communities survive and flourish to a large degree. So there is even some basis for suggesting that blind evolutionary forces do not necessarily pit the strong against the weak in the primitive way that Rand suggests. Indeed, it would make sense that a social species would survive and flourish if altruism was innate at some level. So even if there is no god, the blind forces of evolution may not be "aimed" in the way Ayn Rand suggests. We can never truly know the "aim" of evolutionary forces, but even if we did it wouldn't necessarily matter since we are inside the total system of evolution. We experience the world from the inside the system, and so human understanding of meaning and goodness may not necessarily align with the objective power relations of evolution.

  5. Aaron, I agree: "We can never truly know the "aim" of evolutionary forces."

    It's nonsense for the Ayn Rand-types to try to define who is "strong" and therefore "should survive", or will be selected for survival by evolutionary forces.

    Are the prosperous more worthy of life? Musicians and other artists are rarely prosperous. You can't tell the value of a person by their income.

    My grandfather was an impoverished, illiterate drunkard. He shouldn't reproduce, right? Yet his children and grandchildren are 100% college graduates and several are bona fide geniuses. They are not all prosperous, especially my dentist-cousin who gave up his wealth to go to Macedonia with the Peace Corp. Does that make him an unworthy tax burden, according to Paul Rand?

    "Evolutionary misfits" -- if such creatures exist -- cannot be identified.

  6. “"We can never truly know the "aim" of evolutionary forces." That’s because there is no “aim” of evolution, any more than there can be said to be an “aim” for gravity.

    What does evolution teach us regarding “success?” Well, the most “successful” living things on the planet are bacteria and fungi. They have been around longer than any plant or animal species. The largest living thing on the planet is a fungus.

    Ah, but are we not metazoa? Then we can’t draw lessons from prokaryotes or fungi on how to organize human society. We have to look at “evolutionarly successful” metazoa.

    The most successful phylum is Arthropoda, and among these, the most successful class is Insecta. What do the insects teach us about the best way to organize human society?

    Well, there’s the ants: colonies of ants are sometimes described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony. Hmm. Not very Randian.

    And there’s bees: bee species span the range from solitary to highly eusocial. Each is quite successful in its own niche, so it is impossible to find a consensus social model for success here.

    And there’s termites: termites divide labor among castes, produce overlapping generations and take care of young collectively. Colonies use a decentralised, self-organized systems of activity guided by swarm intelligence to exploit food sources and environments that could not be available to any single insect acting alone.

    What about cockroaches? Research has found a balance between cooperation and competition exists in the group decision-making behavior found in cockroaches. “Balancing cooperation” and competition? “Group” decision-making? I can see Atlas shrugging this model off.

    Leave science alone. Evolution privileges various lifestyles, solitary and communal, as it does different modes of sex determination, reproduction, specialization and dispersal. There is no single model for success in evolution.

    We have to figure out how to get along with each other as humans. There is no book, scientific or religious, that will tell us how to do this. It is something we will have to work out among ourselves, or go extinct trying.

  7. This is exactly the gripe that Darwin had with the Spencerians of his time: what we tend to think of as "social Darwinists." Their point of view has nothing to do with evolution (it was in place before Origin of Species was published) and everything to do with political ideology.

    In the present situation, it's clear to me and a lot of others that the survival of the human race requires collective action of a kind that can only be mandated by the government, since otherwise there is no motivation for people to stop using fossil fuels at a rate that will ultimately make human life unsustainable. At present, there is one political party that gets this; the other won't even try. That's why it does matter whether we have Pelosi or Boehner. It matters very much.

  8. "That's why it does matter whether we have Pelosi or Boehner. It matters very much."

    Now you're talking politics, not science. Ultimately, the path to a sustainable society will demand political solutions.

  9. Exactly, because they are the kind of solutions that the free market will never provide.

  10. And Joel, I'll go one step further. I'm also talking religion, because religious faith respects God's creation and understands our obligation to preserve it. Free market capitalism doesn't care.

  11. it's like my facebook status says:

    The Rand Paul budget is based on book in which sanctimonious rich assholes destroy civilization. Explains a lot, really.

  12. Indeed, there is no aim of evolution. However, it can be useful to use the term "aim" in a loose sense to tell a story about the evolution of a given species and how it "arrived" at its present state. But to assume that evolution has a real and actual aim is certainly wrong. It is blind.