Archive | December, 2017

Hard Rock Laughed

The first time I ever heard of Etheridge Knight’s poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” was in a pearl-clutching 1983 screed by Leonard Peikoff titled “Assault from the Ivory Tower: The Professors’ War Against America.” (I believe I actually heard it first as a local Boston radio broadcast of a Ford Hall Forum talk. I was quite a bit more Randian in these days, but I knew enough to recognise many of his claims as bullshit; see addendum below.) Peikoff, high priest of the High Randian Church, writes:

If you want still more, turn to art – for instance, poetry – as it is taught today in our colleges. For an eloquent example, read the widely used Norton’s Introduction to Poetry, and see what modern poems are offered to students alongside the recognized classics of the past as equally deserving of study, analysis, respect. One typical entry, which immediately precedes a poem by Blake, is entitled “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” The poem begins: “Hard Rock was ‘known not to take no shit / From nobody’ …’ and continues in similar vein throughout. This item can be topped only by the volume’s editor, who discusses the poem reverently, explaining that it has a profound social message: “the despair of the hopeless.” Just as history is what historians say, so art today is supposed to be whatever the art world endorses, and this is the kind of stuff it is endorsing. After all, the modernists shrug, who is to say what’s really good in art? Aren’t Hard Rock’s feelings just as good as Tennyson’s or Milton’s?

Observe (as Randians like to say) that Peikoff feels no need to offer any argument or evidence that “Hard Rock Returns …” is a bad poem; he just leads with a sneer, expecting his herd of independent-minded followers to sneer obediently along with him.

Leonard Peikoff

Or are the quoted lines, along with the title, supposed to constitute the evidence all by themselves? Well then, what’s so self-evidently bad about the snippets Peikoff gives us? Is it that the quoted lines are ungrammatical? Then so much the worse for Mark Twain. Is it that Knight uses the word “shit”? Then so much the worse for Jonathan Swift. Is it that the lives of convicts and the mentally ill are inappropriate subjects for high art? Then so much the worse for Rand’s beloved Hugo and Dostoyevsky. Indeed so much the worse for Rand herself, who said that “for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal – a social outcast – can be an eloquent symbol.”

In addition to getting the name of the anthology wrong (it’s the Norton Introduction, not Norton’s Introduction), Peikoff also misses the point of the poem; it’s not about “Hard Rock’s feelings” but rather the feelings of his fellow inmates. Perhaps Peikoff would have benefited from taking some of those classes he shudders at.

As for myself, I think it’s a damn good poem; and I guess I should thank Peikoff for introducing me to it. I also think it’s a poem concerning which anyone who claims to care about such things as heroic individualism and oppressive government ought to have been able to find something more intelligent to say than Peikoff managed. And it strikes me that the closing lines about “the doer of things / We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do” would not even be out of place in the pages of The Fountainhead or Ideal.

But judge for yourself.

Addendum: In the same essay, Peikoff also offers the following summary of Lawence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning:

A social psychologist from Harvard, who also regards that code [= altruism and self-sacrifice] as self-evident, has devised a test to measure a person’s level of moral reasoning. … Here is a typical example. “Your spouse is dying from a rare cancer, and doctors believe a drug recently discovered by the town pharmacist may provide a cure. The pharmacist, however, charges $2,000 for the drug (which costs only $200 to make). You can’t afford the drug and can’t raise the money. …

Now comes the answer – six choices, and you must pick one; the answers are given in ascending order, the morally lowest first. The lowest is: not to steal the drug (not out of respect for property rights, that doesn’t enter even on the lowest rung of the test, but out of fear of jail). The other five answers all advocate stealing the drug; they differ merely in their reasons.

Thankfully, despite my youthful Randianism I knew enough in 1983 about theories of moral development to recognise that Peikoff is simply wrong; Kohlberg’s stages of development do not differ as to whether to steal the drug. Answers in favour of stealing and in favour of not stealing are found at every level; the levels differ only as to the kinds of reasons offered for stealing or for not stealing. (See, e.g., here.) That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to criticise about Kohlberg’s test; but Peikoff’s criticism is bogus, a sloppy failure to distinguish examples of answers from criteria for kinds of answer. He also takes Kohlberg’s test to be an evaluation of higher and lower levels as better and worse, whereas Kohlberg presents it value-neutrally, merely as a way of identifying earlier and later stages of psychological development.

Peikoff also expresses horror at a college course on “the different ways in which the handicapped individual and the idea of handicap have been regarded in Western Civilization,” with reference to such figues as “the fool, the madman, the blind beggar, and the witch.” What on earth, then, would Peikoff make of an author whose favourite play was about a man whose life is blighted by a fantastically large nose, and whose favourite novelist wrote books starring a hunchback and a man with a permanent grin carved onto his face?

Peikoff closes his essay by warning his readers/listeners that if they are of an individualist mindset and choose to pursue a university education, they will be in for a “miserable experience,” a “nightmare,” in which they will meet with “every kind of injustice, and even hatred,” will be “unbelievably bored most of the time,” and will generally be “alone and lonely.” The contrast between this gloomy prophecy and the joyous intellectual excitement that actually characterised my college years probably played a role in fueling my increasing skepticism of Randian dogma.

Fritz Lang Syne

While I liked the Suicide Squad movie more than a lot of fans did, it certainly had its problems – one of which was that as the main antagonist, the Enchantress, grew more powerful, she became less scary:

However, in slight mitigation I think I know what they were going for; I suspect that her final appearance was intended as an homage to the Evil Maria in Metropolis:

If Near the Other Graves Be Room Enough For This

This past year saw the release of two major theatrical film adaptations of works by Stephen King. One of them, It, has been a huge hit. The other, The Dark Tower, was much less successful.

Andy Muschetti, the director of It, has offered an explanation of why his film was more popular with audiences than The Dark Tower. According to Muschetti, it’s because It is first and foremost a story about “kids who are lonely and oppressed” and who “learn to get powerful by getting together”; hence “people connect” with It because “it’s a human story” where “the fantastic elements are sort of on the backburner.”

By contrast: “In The Dark Tower, we’re almost immediately invited to jump into this world of fantasy …. It’s just more genre, I think, and you can’t expect a massive audience to eagerly jump into that reality.”

Maybe Muschetti is just being gracious in victory, but c’mon. The Dark Tower didn’t fail because it started out too “genre” or because it asked audiences to “jump” straightaway into a “world of fantasy.” After all, the first Lord of the Rings movie started out with a battle of elves against a giant necromancer. The first episode of Game of Thrones started out with ice zombies in a wilderness on the far side of a 700-foot-high ice wall. I have a hard time imagining opening scenes more “genre” than those two; but audiences seem to have coped.

The Dark Tower failed because the filmmakers stripped out almost everything that was distinctive and haunting about the books and replaced it with generic crap. You know, I can’t even remember what the movie’s opening scene actually was. Whereas everyone who’s read the Dark Tower series remembers the first line of the first book.

Tribaltarian Nation

Insightful quote from Adam Bates:

Q: What is it about the libertarian movement that attracts as you say, “rape apologists, Islamophobes, and nativists?”

A: I think there are two largely distinct strains of belief that lead people to anarchism/libertarianism. One is a fundamental commitment to the liberation of others, and the other is a fundamental and exclusive commitment to the liberation of oneself or one’s tribe.

Both of those sets of people are going to be anti-government, both of them are going to be largely non-interventionist, both of them are going to feel like they support liberty (albeit one definition is universal and the other is tribal), and I think libertarianism has obvious appeal beyond the alternatives.

But with the rise of the social justice movement and increasing global connectivity, we’re seeing that distinction grow starker by the minute. The “tribaltarians” aren’t going to support immigration, they’re not going to support race or culture mixing, they’re not going to support trade, they’re not going to accept any arguments about collective crimes against groups of people that aren’t them, they’re going to recoil at any and every effort to erase the philosophical and moral buffers between “them” and “us.”

So I get it. I get how they got here. But if there ever was a reason for these two groups of people to caucus together, it has now evaporated entirely.

I’m also reminded of Rand’s analysis of tribalism [link goes to an MS Word document]. (The fact that Rand herself was frequently guilty of tribalism doesn’t make her analysis any less useful.)

Lucifer: Threat or Menace?

From a recent episode of Lucifer:

“Well, what came first? Do angels’ powers shape their personalities, or are your personalities shaped by your powers?”

A related question: do these tv shows hire incompetent script editors, or are incompetent script editors hired by these tv shows?

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