On May 6th, 2013 I interviewed Yaron Brook, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute on the campus of the University of Toronto. Dr. Brook was in Toronto to speak on the morality of capitalism which is the focus of his latest book Free Market Revolution – How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government. We discussed the success of the Ayn Rand Institute in Canada, the virtues of being selfish, and end with the disastrous, self-sacrificial foreign policies of Israel and how that country is not doing enough to ensure its security.
On March 22nd, 2012 I sat down with Lord Christopher Monckton for a one-on-one discussion of education, journalism, Catholicism, Islam, conservatism, and philosophy.
In my writings and on my radio show I have continually passed moral judgment on the actions, writings, and sayings of others. Although I do not judge indiscriminately, or lightly, I do not shy away from such judgments and I do not adhere to the biblical commandment “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Matthew 7:1. Instead I adhere to the Objectivist principle “Judge and be prepared to be judged.”
It is common in our society today to think that we are not worthy of passing judgment on others. This has been drummed into us from our not only our Christian upbringing which teaches us to be humble (as destructive as that is), but also from our secular public schools which teach us moral relativism, or more precisely, moral agnosticism. The hypocrisy is of course for our priests and teachers to make the pronouncement that people should not judge they are elevating themselves into a position of moral superiority.
Two weeks ago I lambasted the Ontario public school system for their political indoctrination of children. I stand by my assessment of the system but today would like to honour at least one teacher in that system, in this very city in fact who has come out and revealed a personal observation about the effect of such indoctrination on his pupils.
Dr. Stephen L. Anderson, a high school teacher in the Thames Valley District School Board, and a recent PhD in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, has published an article called “Moments of startling clarity : Moral education programming in Ontario today” in the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation’s publication Education Forum. This is what he had to say:
“…I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on metaphysics and were about to get into ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies – multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.
“I needed an attention-getter: something to really spark interest, something to shock the students awake and make them commit to an ethical judgment. This would form a baseline from which they could begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of moral judgments of all kinds, and then pursue various theories…
“I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha. Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.
“But I was not prepared for their reaction. I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture. They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”
This refusal to take a stand, to make a moral judgment on members of another society or on that society itself is the result of years of indoctrinating children into the cult of multiculturalism, into the dead-end, and I mean that quite literally, of moral relativism or as Dr. Anderson goes on to describe, ethical paralytics.
Moral judgments stem from a moral standard, an ultimate value, the survival of which determines our reasoning for judging something either good or evil. Normally one would make moral judgments based on a standard or ultimate value. For today’s educators and intellectuals this standard is the group or collective one belongs to. Such moral standards are, for example race, gender, sexual preference, economic class, cultural, and religion. If it is good for my race, my gender, sexual preference etc. then it must be good, if is bad for my group then it must be bad. But who is to determine what is best for the group? And what if I belong to several groups? What if I was a Catholic, black, middle class, bi-sexual woman? Who am I to make moral judgment for my group mosaic?
Obviously the answer paralyses the person into making no moral judgments at all and resigns the person to relying on the expert’s judgments on what is right or wrong.
In fact the only standard one should use to make a moral judgment is one’s own life and its survival. What benefits the survival of one’s own life is the good what is detrimental to one’s own life is the evil. When your own life becomes the standard upon which to make your moral judgments then you are standing on a firm ethical ground. You are then in a position to place yourself in the position of another and judge empathically what is right and what is wrong.
In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand responded to the question: “How does one lead a rational life in an irrational society?” thusly:
“I will confine my answer to a single, fundamental aspect of this question. I will name only one principle, the opposite of the idea which is so prevalent today and which is responsible for the spread of evil in the world. That principle is: One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.
“Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.
“It is their fear of this responsibility that prompts most people to adopt an attitude of indiscriminate moral neutrality. It is the fear best expressed in the precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” But that precept, in fact is an abdication of moral responsibility: It is a moral blank check one gives to theirs in exchange for a moral bank check one expects for oneself.
“…so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.”
Using one’s own life as the standard upon which to make a moral judgment and accepting Rand’s principle that “One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment,” the students in Dr. Anderson’s class should have responded to his challenge by saying that the family of Bibi Aisha were committing an evil act in siding with her evil husband by mutilating her and leaving her for dead. The staff at the American hospital acted morally in offering her aid and protecting her.
The students could have gone one step further as I now will. Any culture which permits, encourages, or abets in any way the subjugation of a woman or the mutilation of someone as a punishment for escaping an abusive pig of a husband is inherently evil. To the extent that this is tolerated by the Afghani people is the extent to which they are all complicit to this evil.
Originally broadcast on Just Right #229 December 8, 2011.
Ayn Rand – The Ayn Rand Lexicon pg. 23
In this case the anti-concept of “black market” replaces “free market,” meaning free from government taxation, and regulation.
It is an anti-concept because it is all encompassing of not only the criminal but the virtuous. Take for example the “black market” of human organs. If somebody kills someone then harvests their organs and sells them on the “black market” the real crime becomes the sale of the organs rather than the murder, while a labourer who sells his labour for cash and doesn’t claim it as income to the Canada Revenue Agency is also a part of the “black market” and is smeared with the same criminality associated with the murderer, and yet what the labourer is doing was perfectly legal, if not natural, prior to the implementation of the Income War Tax Act of 1917. A labourer selling his labour for unreported cash in 1916 was an upstanding man earning an honest living but in 1917 became a member of the “black market.”
Today all transactions must be reported to the government, quite technically even bartered goods must be reported as income and the appropriate percentage of capital gain must be submitted in cash to the government. If your neighbour helps you move and you pay him with a bottle of rum the neighbour is obligated to report the value of the rum to the government as income. Not to do so puts him in the “black market.”
What was once a free market in trade for cash or kind has now been labeled with the anti-concept “black market.”
At the root of this is the improper belief that all economic behaviour falls under the jurisdiction of the government. For a man to earn a living he must first submit to the tribe by giving them a cut of his profit. This is extortion at the very least and slavery in essence. This stems from a change in attitude of a civilized society of individuals acting in concert for the betterment of each player in a transaction to a tribal or collectivist attitude where a central authority dictates which transactions are acceptable and which are not; where a central authority coercively interferes in the livelihood of both parties becoming a parasite for the supposed benefit of the tribe. Over the past 94 years (since the implementation of the income tax) most of us have become accustomed to this sense of tribal entitlement to the profit of others.
Another example of this sense of entitlement and the outlawing of what was once a person’s natural right to conduct business in a free market are competition laws, also called anti-trust laws.
“Under the Antitrust laws, a man becomes a criminal from the moment he goes into business, no matter what he does. For instance, if he charges prices which some bureaucrats judge as too high, he can be prosecuted for monopoly or for a successful “intent to monopolize”; if he charges price’s lower than those of his competitors, he can be prosecuted for “unfair competition” or “restraint of trade”; and if he charges the same prices as his competitors, he can be prosecuted for “collusion” or “conspiracy.” There is only one difference in the legal treatment accorded to a criminal or to a businessman: the criminal’s rights are protected much more securely and objectively than the businessman’s.”
Ayn Rand – The Ayn Rand Lexicon pg. 28
“The Rule of Law, in complex times,
Has proved itself deficient.
We much prefer the Rule of Men,
It’s vastly more efficient!”
“Now let me state the present rules,”
The lawyer then went on,
“These very simple guidelines,
You can rely upon:
You’re gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it’s unfair competition if
You think you can charge less!”
“A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion…
Don’t try to charge the same amount,
That would be Collusion!
You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do you see,
Then the market would be yours –
And that’s monopoly!”
Excerpt from The Incredible Bread Machine – by R.W. Grant (1966)
The effect, and intention, of anti-trust laws is to hang a sword of Damocles over the heads of businessmen… all businessmen. At any given time the government can, and has, destroyed wealth, raised the price of goods, and restricted economic choices under the guise of encouraging competition. Ironically they have also created monopolies and subsidized one business over another in the same field. Consider the banking industry and the telecommunications industry. The government has also entered into private enterprise making it difficult for other businesses either to enter the market or to compete. I am reminded of entities like Petro Canada (since privatized) and the CBC.
The businessman has gone from being an individual seeking profit by producing goods or services to willing customers to becoming the host of a parasitic society which feels an entitlement to those goods and services. The businessmen, the inventors, the creative geniuses who create and sell these marvelous things which surround us have become a means to the tribes’ ends.
Whereas before we admired the innovators and businessmen, and erected statues in their honour we now tax them, regulate them and blame them not only for our failures but for their successes. We now have labeled them the dreaded 1%. And we, being the majority 99% must rein in their supposed excesses and bring them to heal. They must do the bidding of the collective for the good of all and they must not expect to profit from their genius.
(Originally broadcast on Just Right #226, November 17, 2011.)
In 1986, Peter Schwartz, of The Intellectual Activist and Chairman of the Board of Advisors of the Ayn Rand Institute, wrote an analysis of Libertarianism called Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty. In it he takes apart the philosophy of Libertarianism and lays it bare. What is left is a failed movement of the left, not unlike the Occupy Wall Street protests in its chaotic makeup and distorted messages.
Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement has attracted people from all political persuasion, but primary from the left, so too the “big tent” of Libertarian movement has attracted a diverse group of people, often from competing philosophical camps.
The term Libertarian was first coined in 1857 by anarcho-communist, Joseph Déjacque. Its intellectual leaders in more modern times were people like the libertarian-socialist or anarcho-syndicalist, Noam Chomsky, and the anarchist, Murray Rothbard. Rothbard actually thought of himself as an anarcho-capitalist which is of course an oxymoronic term.
The writings of Ayn Rand, Frédéric Bastiat, and Ludwig von Mises have also influenced the modern development of the Libertarian movement but it has been the method of libertarians to pick and choose what they like in the writings of these people and reject anything that may suggest any moral instruction.
Ayn Rand was not a libertarian. She was an advocate for capitalism. Libertarians are anti-state while Rand was pro-freedom. Rand saw authority, properly defined and constrained, to be a necessary and proper element in any free society while libertarians consider any authority to be a necessary evil, but evil just the same.
To quote Rand:
“…I disapprove of, disagree with, and have no connection with, the latest aberration of some conservatives, the so-called “hippies of the right,” who attempt to snare the younger or more careless ones of my readers by claiming simultaneously to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism. Anyone offering such a combination confesses his inability to understand either. Anarchism is the most irrational, anti-intellectual notion ever spun by the concrete-bound, context-dropping, whim-worshiping fringe of the collectivist movement where it belongs.” (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)
Harry Binswanger, the Objectivist philosopher and associate of Ayn Rand had this to say of Libertarians:
“In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the “libertarians” are tying capitalism to the whim-worshiping subjectivism and chaos of anarchy. To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one’s own future.” (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)
Libertarians have accepted many tenets of Rand’s political philosophy but have rejected her metaphysics, epistemology, but most of all her ethics. Anyone who would suggest a system of morality to a libertarian is thought of as being authoritarian and of imposing a subjective set of standards of behaviour on them. They would ask ‘who are you to decide what is the right or wrong way for a person to act?’ Or, ‘How can you say for certain what is moral?’ The Libertarian would laud Rand for her advocacy of capitalism, her politics, but they accept it only as a concrete; a system of economics and politics devoid of the fundament from which it arose.
This strikes to the heart of the fault with libertarianism. A libertarian is unable to properly defend capitalism, or even liberty for that matter, except in concrete and pragmatic terms. Their arguments defending capitalism are economic, such as having ‘sound money based on gold would prevent run-away inflation’ or pragmatic, ‘more people benefit from capitalism than from communism.’
Freedom and capitalism to a libertarian exist outside of any other philosophic context or framework. Yet it is this framework which precedes and supports the concepts of freedom and capitalism. If you refuse to understand the necessary philosophic pre-conditions for capitalism then you cannot properly defend it. Capitalism becomes just another system like any other ‘ism.’ It will be thought of as just as valid as any other political or economic system and will fall – as it is doing – due to ignorance of its moral, epistemological and metaphysical roots.
Rand spent much of her life defending the philosophic foundation of capitalism. It is an integral part of a complete philosophy which extols man as a heroic being not some hippie living in a commune where ‘anything goes’ as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Liberty, to Rand, was a necessary condition if man was, not only to survive, but to rise to a limitless potential.
Liberty is something to be defended vigorously but it must be done properly. Liberty without a philosophic context will fall to anyone with a pragmatic excuse for abolishing it. Capitalism stands on a solid ethical foundation and to reject the foundation is to reject capitalism. Libertarians reject the foundation and therefore reject capitalism and are therefore enemies of liberty not advocates for it.
The tragic result of modern libertarian political parties today is that they attract true advocates of capitalism. These individuals are reaching out, often in desperation, to any political movement they think will promote freedom and capitalism. Unfortunately, these kinds of libertarians, the pro-freedom and not simply anti-state libertarians are not actually libertarians at all and their passion for freedom is being swallowed up by a collective of irrational leftists.
Consider the inhabitants of the big tent which is libertarianism:
- The anarchists promoting a stateless society.
- The geo-libertarians who believe that land is an asset held in common and anyone claiming any land to be private must pay a rent to the commons for the benefit of restricting entry to others.
- The left-libertarians or the libertarian-socialists who oppose capitalism and wage labour.
- And the right-libertarians who claim to support capitalism but only as an economic system not as an integrated political ideal in a greater philosophy.
- There is also a small faction of angst ridden nihilists, who claim that morality doesn’t exist. The youth of today might call them ‘emos’.
Such a large group of competing ideologies are held together by one underlying common agreement, hatred of authority.
Such a collective is no place for an advocate of freedom or capitalism. Those that stay don’t stay for long. They soon find that while they may share a common belief that we are over-governed that is where the commonality ends.
To these people I would suggest channeling your energy into promoting freedom, not tearing down government for the sake of it.
(Originally aired on Just Right #223, October 27, 2011.)
By now we are all familiar with the England riots of a few weeks ago. By now we are all familiar with all the reasons given to explain the violence, the poor education system, single parenting, lack of father figures, lack of political leadership, ineffective policing, racial tensions, multiculturalism, football hooliganism, Facebook, twitter, cell phones, violent music lyrics, the poor economy, youth unemployment, lack of religion, lack of values, lack of empathy, or my favorite…hoodies. All of these and many more reasons have one thing in common which, with rare exception, is going unmentioned. What many of these have in common is a philosophy, the philosophy of altruism, the philosophy of selflessness, the philosophy of despair, the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant.
For every human action there must be an underlying philosophy of the person taking the action. The decision to stay in bed or to get out of bed is based on your philosophy. Whether you are able to explicitly articulate your philosophy or not does not negate the fact that you have a philosophy. The vast majority of us are unable to properly define their philosophy or even have the vaguest notion that they even have one.
Whether you are happy in your work or home life or miserable is based on your philosophy. Whether or not you vote or do not vote and who you vote for is based on your philosophy. And whether or not you participate in a riot or stay at home and lock your doors while the world goes to hell in a hand cart is also a consequence of your philosophy.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and I can still remember political pundits arguing over the cause of youth crime, in the major American cities of New York, in Detroit, in Los Angeles. Canadian major cities had much less but given time and the deliberate attempt by our socialist governments we can now say we have fully cosmopolitan cities which can rival the world’s greatest cities, at least in crime and rioting.
The philosophy of altruism and of sacrifice is drummed into our heads from the day we are born. Are parents tell us to share our toys with our siblings even though they are our toys and we don’t want to. Our teachers tell us of the evils of capitalism and materialism and of how we should conserve and deprive ourselves or the pleasures of convenience lest we destroy the environment. Our priests and mullahs preach that we must be good Samaritans and give to the poor or we are being immoral and selfish and will go to hell for our greed. Our politicians tell us to cut back, conserve, and pay more in taxes so that starving Somalians can eat or so that your neighbour can have that chemotherapy to remove that tumor on her nose from getting too much sun while she was in Mexico.
Everywhere we turn, from our music our newspapers, schools, churches, television programs and political commercials we are told to give, give and give until we are left a hollow shell so that others can benefit.
And the reciprocal side of this we have the recipients of our forced generosity. We have children growing up knowing full well that they don’t have to work in order to survive. They will be given free subsidized housing, free abortions should they get pregnant, free baby bonuses should they decide to keep the children they bear, free education, free medical care, free food, free welfare payments and when they are ready to retire from such a tough life, free pension and Old Age Security payments.
The incentive to work is driven out of us from two fronts. Should you choose to work you are taxed, regulated and controlled at a rates and extents that makes you wonder why you should get out of bed in the morning. If you don’t have a job you wonder why you should even look for one since the state will provide you with all you need to survive quite comfortably in a style our grandparents would only think is luxury.
What these disincentives to work do for the self-esteem of a person strikes at the root of the violence we have seen perpetrated by mobs of youth around the world. Our nature as humans, as rational beings dictates that in order to survive we must work productively. Left to nature alone we will die. The fruit will not fall off the tree into our open mouths, the trees will not fall and arrange themselves into shelters to keep out the cold on their own, sheep will not sheer themselves and knit sweaters for us to wear. We must conform nature to fit us. We must engage in productive work using the only tool nature provides us, a rational mind. We have to create, build, cultivate, exchange value for value in order to survive. It is what makes us human beings. To take this away from us either by robbing us to provide for the welfare of others or by providing for us at the expense of others destroys who we are. It violates our very nature. It destroys our self-worth.
The person who does not have to lift a finger in order to live can value nothing. With nothing to value there can be nothing to motivate us into action. We become immune to the stimuli around us. The lines between good and evil become blurred and indistinct. Out actions, if we take any, become random and haphazard. We lash out indiscriminately at anybody and anything for no good reason. Or, conversely we turn inward and wallow in a depressing stupor. We turn to drugs to stimulate our starving minds. We turn to suicide to end the meaningless existence.
Only by having needs, and desires do we determine our values and only by having values do we set goals for ourselves and only by having goals do we have the motivation to create and produce and do what is necessary to try and reach our goals and attain that which we value.
The welfare state is robbing us at every turn not only of the fruits of our productive effort but at the motivation to even try to achieve anything. The results of 70 years of creeping welfare-statism has turned us from productive humans into mindless, valueless, animals who either work for the benefit of others or lay about and reap the rewards of the efforts of others.
In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged she talked about the moral necessity of productive work in Galt’s Speech:
Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live – that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values – that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others – that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human – that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear- corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay – that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live – that your body is a machine but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road – that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up – that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.
The cult of the altruist has permeated all walks of life and all social strata. When Bill Gates feels the need to give away his billions (which is his right of course) out of some misplaced sense of guilt many successful people feel, and when Obamas’ stooge, Warren Buffet calls for greater tax rates on the rich, a strictly evil suggestion, then we know that even men of great productive capacity are not immune to Kant’s philosophy of selflessness and despair.
The cure for this philosophy and subsequently for the violence we have seen in England this month and likewise riots throughout the world is to arm ourselves with a philosophy which rejects mysticism and the evil notion that we are our brother’s keeper, which extols the virtues of man as a rational being, which champions the individual over the group and which establishes a moral code for living peacefully and productively. This philosophy is called Objectivism.
Originally aired on Just Right #213, August 18, 2011.
Focus On: POLITICAL PARTIES – Why They Believe What They Do
Anybody But Harper! – Subjectivism Vs Intrinsicism
Conservative, Liberal, New Democrat – What Ethical System Motivates Each?
A Brief Look At Canada’s Fringe Parties – Dis Dat And De Odder Ting
How Many Canadians Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb?
With the release of the Atlas Shrugged movie, not to mention the past recession, there has been a renewed interest in the works of Ayn Rand. Having read all her books my personal favorite of the non-fiction has to be The Romantic Manifesto. It is this book which has stayed with me for all these 20 years since I first read it.
The Romantic Manifesto is about aesthetics, the appreciation of art and who among us can live from day to day without listening to music, seeing a statue or a painting, reading a book, watching a play, a movie or even a television program?
If I were to mention to you Whistler’s Mother who would not imagine an old lady in a chair?
If I were to say to you, ”Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—“ you would know at once that I was quoting Edgar Allen Poe who wrote those lines 166 years ago.
And how about “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou,” a 900 year old poem from Omar Khayyam still resonating with us today.
Art, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, play, or television program is an essential requirement for the human mind. In fact it is singularly human. No other animal has anything which can be said to be art or anything near to it.
Art also seems to be as old as man with many artifacts which could be called art dating back tens of thousands of years.
But what purpose does art serve? Art exists as an end unto itself, but not for the sake of itself. “Ars gratia artis”, or “art for art’s sake” is not entirely correct. Instead it should be “ars gratia hominem”, if my Latin is correct, or “art for man’s sake”. It exists to please us. It is there to be contemplated by man. It needs only to be reflected upon, to be appreciated. A work of art lives although its creator may be long dead and buried. It lives but only as we, man, can contemplate it. When the last man dies so too dies all art. From that point on a novel will be only ink on paper, a painting will be only dried oil on canvas, and a sculpture will be only a lump of marble.
There is the age old question of what makes art good as opposed to bad? It is here that The Romantic Manifesto is clear. Art requires at least two choices by the artist. The first is selection. What aspect of reality will he choose to focus upon? It cannot be random. It must be chosen. The second is how the artist will choose to stylize the selection. Both the selection of the subject and how it comes to represent reality reveal the artist’s sense of life. His fundamental philosophy encapsulated in a moment of song or image evoking an emotion in those who perceive it. Likewise the emotion that a piece of art evokes reveals something of the sense of life of the recipient of the art.
What makes good art or bad art, however, is not a matter of how we as critics simply feel. It requires a cognitive evaluation of work, a thoughtful evaluation which analyses style, technical ability and subject matter. The result of such an analysis determines whether or not an art work is good or not. A value judgment is made which says something not only of the artist but of the viewer or listener.
If I might drop a cliché, I may not know art but I know what I like. But more importantly not only do I know what I like I know why I know what I like.
By way of contrasting good and bad art I have chosen two pieces from two of my favorite playwrights, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and I will compare them with the painter Jackson Pollock and a playwright I consider to be particularly bad, or more specifically to represent a negative sense of life, Samuel Beckett.
The first play excerpt requires a bit of explanation. If any of you have read or even listened to Shakespeare without having the pleasure of seeing it performed you will understand that it can be virtually indecipherable without context and a bit of explanation.
What follows is from Love’s Labor’s Lost Act 4 Scene 2. Holofernes is a very learned schoolmaster who prides himself on his wit and intelligence. I like to think that Holofernes is actually Shakespeare himself having some fun with the audience by showing off his remarkable skill at wordplay.
Holofernes recites an extemporal epitaph about the killing, by the princess, of a deer. A pricket is a buck of two years and a sorel is a buck of three years. The L he refers to is the Roman numeral for fifty. Look for some false humility when he explains his gift for poetry and rhyme and also for the sexual innuendo when complimented on his skill by his friend curate, Sir Nathaniel.
The preyful princess pierced and prick’d a pretty
Some say a sore; but not a sore, till now made
sore with shooting.
The dogs did yell: put L to sore, then sorel jumps
Or pricket sore, or else sorel; the people fall a-hooting.
If sore be sore, then L to sore makes fifty sores
Of one sore I an hundred make by adding but one more L.
A rare talent!
[Aside] If a talent be a claw, look how he claws
him with a talent.
This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a
foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures,
shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions,
revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of
memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and
delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the
gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am
thankful for it.
Sir, I praise the Lord for you; and so may my
parishioners; for their sons are well tutored by
you, and their daughters profit very greatly under
you: you are a good member of the commonwealth.
Mehercle, if their sons be ingenuous, they shall
want no instruction; if their daughters be capable,
I will put it to them: but vir sapit qui pauca
As another example of art which portrays a positive sense of life I chose Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, a marvelous, up-lifting, and humorous play about, love and deception from the master of wit himself. This is a an edited excerpt;
Algernon. …Besides, your name isn’t Jack at all; it is Ernest.
Jack. It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.
Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] ‘Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.’ I’ll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else. [Puts the card in his pocket.]
Jack. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country…
Algernon. Now, go on! Tell me the whole thing. I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.
Jack. Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist?
Algernon. I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.
Jack. My dear fellow, there is nothing improbable about my explanation at all. In fact it’s perfectly ordinary. Old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted me when I was a little boy, made me in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew. Cecily, who addresses me as her uncle from motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate, lives at my place in the country under the charge of her admirable governess, Miss Prism.
Algernon. Where is that place in the country, by the way?
Jack. That is nothing to you, dear boy. You are not going to be invited… I may tell you candidly that the place is not in Shropshire.
Algernon. I suspected that, my dear fellow! I have Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions. Now, go on. Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?
Jack. My dear Algy, I don’t know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough. …in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.
Algernon. The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!
Jack. That wouldn’t be at all a bad thing.
Algernon. Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.
Shakespeare should be no stranger to us. His plays and sonnets about love, jealousy, betrayal, adventure, war, death, humour and every emotion one could think of have stood the test of time being over 400 hundred years old and still being played in theatres and made into movies to this day. His themes are universal to the human condition. His eloquence is iconic. He was a master craftsman of the English language. He was a great artist with a positive sense of life, extolling the virtues of man; love, honour, heroism, justice and beauty.
Oscar Wilde was a wordsmith as well and a commentator on the society of his day. His restrained yet rebellious nature is evident in his plays and stories. His positive sense of life and love comes screaming out of a Victorian background of suspicion and fear. His words help change the attitudes of a nation in a more enlightened direction.
These have been two examples of artists who have exhibited uplifting art stemming from a positive sense of life. Let’s contrast that now with artists who have the opposite sense of life. A negative, pessimistic sense of life who choose as their theme the common, the vulgar, the depraved, the ordinary, the grotesque, the mundane.
Ayn Rand once wrote in The Romantic Manifesto;
Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper objects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them – but are not proper objects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake. In art, and in literature, these negatives are worth recreating only in relation to some positive, as a foil, as a contrast, as a means of stressing the positive – but not as an end in themselves…
That one should wish to enjoy the contemplation of values, of the good – of man’s greatness, intelligence, ability, virtue, and heroism – is self explanatory. It is the contemplation of the evil that requires explanation and justification; and the same goes for the contemplation of the mediocre, the undistinguished, the commonplace, the meaningless, the mindless.
I once visited the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and there I saw a painting of oil on acrylic by Jackson Pollock. It amounted to a random splashing of paint on a piece of plastic. A blind five year old could have replicated the work, or at least the essential hap-hazard nature of the work, with no effort. It is paintings like Pollock’s which have come to represent the pinnacle of ignorance in society. So-called art experts have embraced the absurd and the unintelligible in some vane disguise at credibility. They have created a niche market for garbage where they have exalted themselves into positions of authority on the indefinable. Anybody who dares to negatively critique work such as Pollock’s are ridiculed for being unimaginative, out of touch, or plebeian, while they seem to hold some mystical understanding of these random scribblings and paint splashes. This is not unlike an astrologist claiming to understand human behavior by knowing the position of the planets at the time of your birth or a witch doctor understanding what ails you by throwing the entrails of a sacrificial goat into a bowl and divining your ailment by deciphering the random patterns made by the guts.
I’m going to end my comparison of good and bad art with an excerpt from a modern playwright who has garnered a following of astrologists and witch doctors claiming to understand his verbal excrement.
Samuel Beckett has written a number of plays which have as their theme (if it could be said that any of his plays have a theme) the commonplace ramblings and disjointed thoughts of unremarkable people.
Perhaps his greatest known work, celebrated amongst the mentally challenged, is the play, Waiting for Godot. It is about two men waiting on a hill adorned by a single tree who apparently are waiting for a man named Godot to meet them. If you haven’t’ seen the play I don’t think I’m going to spoil your day too much by revealing that they never meet Godot. It is intimated that the two men have been waiting an indefinite period of time for this man Godot. Who Godot is is unexplained. Who these men are or why they are waiting for Godot is left unanswered. While waiting they briefly contemplate committing suicide by hanging themselves from the tree. Unfortunately for the audience, who perhaps had the same thought while watching the play, they change their minds.
At some point they are met by two men, Pozzo and Lucky who arrive for no apparent reason. Lucky has a rope around his neck and is led by Pozzo who refers to him as “Pig” Commanding him to walk this way and that. When a hat is placed on Lucky’s head, Pozzo commands him to “Think!” What follows is a five minute logorrhea, a stream of consciousness that makes no sense. In fact it should be called a stream of unconsciousness. The meaning of the play has never been explained. Nor has the meaning of any of Beckett’s other plays which are equally baffling in their incomprehensible gibberish. And yet Samuel Beckett is praised as an iconic figure in modern theatre. Here is the excerpt;
….wastes and pines and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds fying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicillin and succedanea in a word I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell fades away I resume Fulham Clapham in a word the dead loss per head since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per head approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara in a word for reasons unknown no matter what matter the facts are there and considering what is more much more grave that in the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman that in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and then the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air and the earth …
Nine hundred years ago we had the brilliant imagery of Omar Khayyam asking us to reflect on the briefness of life. Four hundred years ago we had Shakespeare titillating our minds with his eloquence. Even 100 years ago we had Oscar Wilde stirring us out of our prudish, Victorian malaise with wit and satire. While of late we have had the psychologically pathological likes of Jackson Pollock and Samuel Beckett mesmerizing and stupefying us into mass confusion.
I hope that one day we can dismiss artists such as Pollock and Beckett as life-hating, pitiable people not worthy of our attention and begin embracing art which is positive, up-lifting, life-loving and true to our nature as rational beings. It’s time we stopped waiting for Godot.
(Originally broadcast on Just Right #196, April 21, 2011 with audio clips where text excerpts appear here.)
This week (Oct 22, 2009) some London City Councilors have suggested that the city turn off its street lights completely so that that the birds and the trees can get their rest. Yes, not the birds and the bees but the birds and the trees. This dark skies lunacy is just another innovative way that the meddlers have found find to make our lives just that more miserable.
All of this over-regulation, banning, and health scares have something in common and what they have in common is hatred.
About 50 years ago Ayn Rand identified exactly what motivates these people. She called it “hatred of the good for being the good.”
The following is from an article called The Age of Envy, in
Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, by Ayn Rand.
“Today, we live in the Age of Envy.
“Envy is regarded by most people as a petty, superficial emotion and, therefore, it serves as a semihuman cover for so inhuman an emotion that those who feel it seldom dare admit it even to themselves . . . . That emotion is: hatred of the good for being the good.
“This hatred is not resentment against some prescribed view of the good with which one does not agree . . . . Hatred of the good for being the good means hatred of that which one regards as good by one’s own (conscious or subconscious) judgment. It means hatred of a person for possessing a value or virtue one regards as desirable.
“If a child wants to get good grades in school, but is unable or unwilling to achieve them and begins to hate the children who do, that is hatred of the good. If a man regards intelligence as a value, but is troubled by self-doubt and begins to hate the men he judges to be intelligent, that is hatred of the good.
“The nature of the particular values a man chooses to hold is not the primary factor in this issue (although irrational values may contribute a great deal to the formation of that emotion). The primary factor and distinguishing characteristic is an emotional mechanism set in reverse: a response of hatred, not toward human vices, but toward human virtues.
“To be exact, the emotional mechanism is not set in reverse, but is set one way: its exponents do not experience love for evil men; their emotional range is limited to hatred or indifference. It is impossible to experience love, which is a response to values, when one’s automatized response to values is hatred.”
This quote is from later in the same article:
“What is the nature of a creature in which the sight of a value arouses hatred and the desire to destroy? In the most profound sense of the term, such a creature is a killer, not a physical, but a metaphysical one—it is not an enemy of your values, but of all values, it is an enemy of anything that enables men to survive, it is an enemy of life AS SUCH and of everything living.”
And the last quote I have is from Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged.
“They do not want to OWN your fortune, they want you to LOSE it; THEY do not want to SUCCEED, they want YOU to FAIL; they do not want to live, they want YOU to die; they desire nothing, they hate existence, and they keep running, each trying not to learn that the object of his hatred is himself . . . . They are the essence of evil, they, those anti-living objects who seek, by devouring the world, to fill the selfless zero of their soul. It is not your WEALTH that they’re after. Theirs is a conspiracy against the MIND, which means: against life and man.”
Man’s means of survival is an unfettered mind working in a free society. Man creates a light bulb – then someone tells him to turn it off. Man creates items of convenience – then someone tells him that his items of convenience are destroying the insects or the rocks or the trees. Man creates luxury and is then made to feel guilty about it because it goes beyond mere survival.
Name something man-made and you will always find someone like a politician or pseudo-intellectual who will try to make you feel guilty about using it.
Take your clothes…made with slave labour in China.
Your bottle of water…filling up our landfills.
Your cell phone…gives you brain tumors.
Your car…pollutes the air.
Your house…not energy efficient enough.
Your food…makes you fat or gives you cancer.
Your entertainment, whether television, movies or video games…promotes violence or objectifies women.
Your self and your children…overpopulation.
The list is endless. You name it and they will find a reason to destroy it. You value it and they will hate it.
We have on London City Council, and in Queen’s park and in Ottawa a great tribe of people who hate technology, convenience, luxury, even survival itself. The reason they hate these things is that they really just hate themselves.
(Originally broadcast on Just Right October 22nd, 2009 (Show #125). To download the show visit http://www.justrightmedia.org)