This Afternoon

This morning, I quite literally forgot to write.

I’ve been busy trying to get ready to move, and also to do all the things that pile up during the school year which I save for the summer: I have books to read and books to write, shows to binge watch, movies to re-watch, and of course I have to lose twenty pounds and go visit Las Vegas.

In no particular order.

No, actually: the books are first, after the move. All the rest of it can wait or simply not happen.

But while I was thinking about moving, I thought about the Sims. And I wished that moving in real life could be as simple as moving in the Sims: you click on all of your possessions and put them into your inventory; then you click on the house, click Move Family Out, and then go to the new house and click Move In, and BOOM! Done. Then you just move the furniture back out of your personal inventory, and everything is perfect.

The only realistic touch in moving in the game is that it is absurdly expensive. Though again, point and click and you can instantly make money, by selling furniture that magically vanishes into thin air once you make the decision to sell, without a single awkward phone call or visit from somebody from the depths of Craig’s List. You can even sell the paint off of your walls.

That’s another thing I’d like for real life to be like the Sims: money. First, I’d like to get paid every day; I’d like to get promotions basically every week; I’d like to have increasingly nice vehicles come to pick me up for work every day, ending with either a limo or a helicopter. Though I’d hate getting those phone calls from your boss when you miss work; that would be a pain. I’d like to get hired for every single job I ever asked for, and to be able to go back to an old career at exactly the same spot where I left it. I’d like job searching to comprise between three and seven possibilities every day, every single one of them at least potentially appropriate to me and my needs.

I’d like to be able to gain or lose weight in a matter of hours with a treadmill or a refrigerator. I’d like the refrigerator to supply all the materials of a meal, with only a little chopping and mixing for meal prep. I’d like the food to be cooked in seconds, and I’d like to be able to store leftovers in the fridge simply by picking up the plate of food and shoving it in the ol’ Frigidaire. I’d also really like to be able to pull leftovers out of the fridge and set them on the table exactly as they were when last served: and also steaming hot the second I put them on a plate.

I’d like to be able to learn important and complicated skills like machine repair and cooking with a few hours and a book. I’d like to know what all of my needs are, and how to fulfill them in simple, straightforward ways, and I’d like to reach any of those reward-type events that come from satisfying all of my needs: I’d like to enter the Zone, or turn all gold and sparkly. I’d like to dance with happiness, spontaneously and often.

I’d like to be able to leave my life — though it had better stay on pause when I do; the console version of Sims 3 was an atrocity for that reason — and go visit other people’s. I’d like to be able to manipulate both my own story and other people’s, though I’d like to be able to say that I would only do it benevolently. I’d like that to be true. But I know perfectly well that my Sims play has not shown me to be a benevolent master: I am far more likely to torment than to guide, to debase rather than uplift. What can I say? It’s more fun. Besides, I’m not talking about whether I should be allowed to run the world like a massive game of Sims: clearly I should not, as my long history of Sims serial killers should show; I’m just talking about what I would like.

I would really like to control Donald Trump.

There are certainly aspects of the Sims I would not want to reproduce in my life. First is the time frame: Sims don’t live long. I would not want my life to be measured in days, no matter how efficiently run those days could be. The Sims are always more interested in socializing than I am; my Sims’ social interactions are inevitably rote and reluctant, stuck in between more interesting tasks (where they are not strange and warped as part of my more diabolical plans), and I am always annoyed by their constant need for other Sims in their lives. I do indeed need other people in my life, specifically my wife and my pets, but I don’t suffer the Sims’ rapid disintegration of mood in their momentary absence, and I don’t want to change that. Sims are much too materialistic for me: they are made instantly happier by buying slightly more expensive versions of the stuff they already have, and I have very little interest in that. And, of course, I want to be able to open a door even if someone did leave a plate in front of it — and I would really hate it if I left a puddle on the floor just because someone was standing in front of the door to the bathroom when I had to go.

I’d kinda like it if there were actual fireworks in the sky every time I WooHooed.

Anyway: I guess the point is that I wish I had more control over my life, that every thing I did could be intentional and a valuable use of my time. (Clearly I also want rewards without effort, but hey, who doesn’t?) My Sims play is marked by efficiency: I love nothing more than lining up a dozen tasks for my Sims, and then letting them run through their entire day while I watch and intervene as needed. My life is very much the opposite of that: as you can tell by my rapid decline in posting a This Morning post every morning, as soon as my school year ends. I am nothing if not inefficient. But also, I don’t want to do what would be needed to become more efficient: because it’s my inefficiency, my wasted time, that allows me to be the one thing my Sims can never, ever be:

Me.

This Morning

Congratulations! This morning you have been visited by the Sunday Sloth.

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The Sunday Sloth gives you his permission to be slothful today. You  may do as little as you like, particularly if it means you get to rest and relax and recuperate. G’ ahead; if sloths can live their lives this slowly, then you can slow down a little, too. At least for today.

And hey look! It’s the Happ Corgo of Happiness! That means you are allowed to be happy today, no matter what! So even if you feel like you can’t be slothy (Which would be a shame, because you would disappoint the Sunday Sloth. You don’t want to do that, do you?), you should be happy while you do your necessaries. The Happ Corgo insists.

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LOOK! HE BROUGHT THE HAPPUPPER WITH HIM! Well, now you have to be TWICE as happy.

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Thank you, Happupper. We all love you.

 

Happy Sunday, everyone.

Getting Deeper into Atlas Shrugged

This is the first of what may be a new category of post on this blog. As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a follower, I’ve been moving away from the usual ranting essay type of post and more into book reviews; this is intentional. But sometimes, I have more to say about a book, and when I do, I will write one of these. I’m going to call them DustNotes. (Maybe HumpNotes? No. Definitely DustNotes.)

I will also say that this one comes from requests that I got from friends, several of whom said they were glad that I had read this book because now they didn’t have to. This gave me an idea: I have plenty of TBR books of my own, of course — too many, really — but I would be willing to take requests, if there are any books that someone wants to get my opinion on. That includes new and unpublished authors, by the way; I’m willing to read and review pretty much anything you want my take on. You can email me at writeth@tonidebiasi.com if you’re interested.

For now, here are my DustNotes.

 

Book: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Concept: While the book was being written, the working title was The Strike; that is the concept. (Gotta say: Atlas Shrugged is actually an excellent title, and a clever way to describe the theme. Godlike being holding up the world, and the weight grows too much for him, so he – shrugs it off.) The Prime Movers (as Rand referred to them in her notes, though not in the novel), the most valuable members of society, withdraw from society – they go on strike – and society collapses without them. In general, these people are the Men (and the book is bloody sexist, though maybe a reflection of the times, as it was written between about 1946 and 1957) of the Mind; most of them are industrialists – an oil man, a steel man, a copper man, a man who makes cars and another who builds airplanes. Though there is also a physicist and a philosopher, a banker, and a token few artists. They are the Men of the Mind because they are extremely intelligent, extremely capable, extremely strong-willed; they are perfect rational beings, which Rand saw as the human ideal.

The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men. We need them, but they don’t need us. Not that people couldn’t live without them at all, but rather, without the Men of the Mind to prop up the society we have built which relies on them so heavily, will inevitably and rapidly destroy itself. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.

Rather than get into a specific synopsis – which, considering how excessively long this book is, would be too dull to read – I’m going to break down the ideas in the book into the ones that are Interesting, those that are Silly, and those that are worth More Thought. I will probably not explain these too well; partly that’s because I’m trying to be brief about some complicated things, some of which I still need to think more about in order to understand and agree with or critique; partly it’s because the explication of these ideas came in the form of a novel that was too long by a factor of ten. I got tired of trying to understand, and Rand’s writing doesn’t make it easier. I will try to present them anyway. Here we go.

Interesting idea: man is a rational animal; a creature of “volitional consciousness.” The means of our survival is our reason, which is our ability to perceive reality and then act upon it and shape it through the application of our intellect. The “volitional” part is where Rand states that we must choose to use our rational faculty; if we do not choose to do so, then we are not human, or not good. It is interesting to state that our purpose is to think, and that thinking defines us; so many of our definitions have to do with chosen associations like nationality or religion or politics, or accidental ones like race or bloodline or family name. I like this idea.

Idea that needs more thought: the realization of man’s rational faculty is – production. Rand is very clear about this: because production is the means of our physical survival, it is the natural and correct result of our reason – which is the means of our survival, remember, so by using our reason, we produce, generally concrete value, preferably in the form of steel or coal or oil or a railroad. The pinnacle of our society, she says, our greatest accomplishment as a race—is New York City. This is also why the industrialists are the pinnacle of human achievement, because they are the most productive. I am not sure that everything that humans do qualifies as productive – if a scientific theory doesn’t lead to better steel or a faster car, is it productive? If not, does that make it evil or a waste of time? What about art? – and I am not sure that our purpose is to continue surviving through concrete productivity. More thought on this one, for me.

Silly idea: The United States of America is the greatest country in the history of the world because it was the only country founded on the idea that men should be free to use their reason and be independent individuals; all other countries are founded on random chance and evil institutions. Okay, sure, the Constitution is a genuinely special document, and the Founding Fathers were, in my opinion, some of the greatest political geniuses who ever lived, and we are the recipients of their genius; but that really doesn’t mean that every other country is a pile of shit, which is essentially what Rand says. Particularly not now, when a large number of modern nations have exactly the social and political structure that Rand claims is the only moral one – that is, capitalism (though of course, she wants it laissez-faire – but hell, America ain’t that, either.) and a foundation of individual rights. It’s American exceptionalism taken to an extreme, and it ignores both the flaws in this idealized nation and the successes of other nations. It’s silly. Though I guarantee that this is one of the reasons this book is so very popular among Americans. I should note that the book was written during the height of the Cold War, and Rand herself lived through the rise of the Soviet Union and suffered because of it; she was virulently anti-Socialist, and in the book, every other nation on Earth is socialist, and all of them are propped up by goods provided by the United States. So she might have been picking a very specific bone in a specific context; given the world of 2017, she might pick out a couple of other nations that are acceptable, the UK or Australia or Germany or South Korea or Japan.

Interesting idea: industrialists are the greatest contributors to our modern productivity. Through innovation and economic leadership, they add more to our productive capacity than anyone else, and therefore create more wealth and save more time, through freeing up people from menial labor, than anyone else in history. For this we should be grateful; instead we tend to castigate them as greedy, soulless robber barons. I hadn’t thought of industrialists this way, and I think there is validity to it (Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being, just as NYC is the ultimate achievement. I’m not there, but I can appreciate the things that industry has done for us. I’m glad I don’t have to spend my life behind a plow.). I know I have been hard on capitalists and industrialists and corporate men in the past, and this has made me realize I shouldn’t have been. Sure, of course some of them have been and are vile people; but just the fact of being a successful industrialist isn’t a crime, and shouldn’t be seen as morally reprehensible.

Needs more thought: the individual is better, in all ways, than the collective; altruism, which for Rand means sacrificing something of value for the sake of another person, is evil. This is the fundamental piece of the book’s philosophy that I have the most trouble with. The leader of the Men of the Mind has them all take an oath: “I swear that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The book argues that any gift is a sin, that the only moral interaction between people is voluntary trade, with value given for value and the consent of both parties. It is very clear that charity is evil: not only for those who ask for help, but also for those who grant help, unless it is part of a trade. Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch. She grants marriage the status of a trade largely because of sex; she says nothing about raising children. I don’t see how raising children can be anything but a gift from parent to child; I know I certainly can’t repay my parents for what they gave me. I suppose the possibility that I will care for them in their old age as they cared for me in my youth, but what if that doesn’t happen? Certainly it isn’t a debt that can be called in except under specific circumstances, and if it isn’t called in – isn’t that a gift?

Rand is also clear that only the person who owns a thing, a thought, an invention, a piece of property, should be permitted to judge what to do with it. Having any form of government or social control over an individual’s property is always theft. Only an individual can decide what to do with his mind, or the product of his mind; any attempt to coerce that individual is a denial of that individual’s rights, and also, interestingly, a denial of the coercer’s basic humanity: because when I claim that I need someone else to do something for me, to make a decision for me, then I am saying that I can’t make the decision for myself. I am denying my own rational capacity, which is, Rand says, what makes me human. (One of the unfortunate corollaries of this in the book is the idea that anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal. It gets a little tired.) The Men of the Mind in this book are always absolutely sure of their own individual decisions; everyone else can’t make a decision even when their lives depend on it. This theme is repeated so often that it turns first into a parody, and then into just repetitious drudgery. After 1070 pages of the non-awesome-people saying, “I don’t know what to do! I can’t decide! You decide for me!” and the awesome people lifting their mighty chins and saying, “No,” I wanted to freaking decide for them just to shut them up.

Point is: the idea that I have to choose what I do, that only I can choose for myself, that I must trust my own judgment over all others’; interesting idea. The argument that taxes, therefore, for any purpose other than police or courts or national defense are only theft of an individual’s property at the barrel of a gun – the libertarian ideal – still needs more thought for me, though this book did make me move a bit more libertarian and a bit less liberal, at least at the moment. The idea that this also means that I can’t ever give anything to anyone, that altruism is suicide, that EVERYTHING must be traded value for value – pretty freaking questionable.

Silly idea: All of the Men of the Mind are tall. All of them are slender, and all are white except for one Argentinian. Who’s pretty danged white, since he only speaks English, never spends time with anyone who isn’t a white American (Not when he’s in the actual narration. He does go back to Argentina, where he talks, presumably, to other Argentinians, but we never follow him there.), and has blue eyes. All of the Men of the Mind have light-colored eyes, blue or gray or green. A lot of ’em are blonde, though they are mostly tan, so not all white. But that doesn’t matter; we’re concerned with their abilities and their actions, not their appearance. Still, the book talks a whole lot about the good people being slender and the evil ones all being either pudgy or scrawny; the pattern is too consistent to be accidental, or anything other than specific intentional symbolism. And as a member of the House of Pudge, I found it annoying and distracting. Though I will note that Rand would have thought me evil. So maybe she was onto something.

Interesting idea: Happiness is the moral purpose of life. Our purpose in existing is to experience joy, the complete, fulfilling, guilt-free joy that comes with actually doing what we are meant to do. Now, this gets a little tangled around the idea of “purpose.” Our purpose as living things is to keep living, but that’s not enough for happiness; our means of living as humans is reason, but just thinking isn’t enough for happiness; our purpose in living is happiness. I’m not really sure how to parse those all out, but I like the idea that we exist to be joyful. Rand claims that our joy comes from the realization of our individual values, which I find more questionable – because in Rand’s eyes, we all have the same values, namely that we are all happiest when we are being productive, and I question that because Jeffrey Dahmer was happiest when he was murdering and eating people – but still: joy good. Rather than “sacrifice to a greater good” being our source of true fulfillment, or a specific thing like raising a family, living a good Christian life, whatever – we should live to be happy. There are interesting implications of the idea, but mainly, I just like it.

Needs more thought: Existence exists, reality is real, A is A. This comes apparently from Aristotle, so isn’t properly Rand’s thought; but it is a major theme of this book, because the book claims repeatedly (exhaustingly, just like everything else in this book) that contradictions cannot exist, that when we think we see a contradiction, we are mistaken in one of our premises – and I am very glad that I don’t have to read, again, about the Men of the Mind emitting some manly condescending chuckle and saying, “Check your premises.” Buncha know-it-all smug-butts. Apart from that, though, this is the foundation of Rand’s epistemology, and apparently has a lot to do with her criticism of modern society. It seems we make shit up a lot, and act as though it is real; in so doing, we create contradictions, and then either ignore them even as they break down our ability to progress, or use the contradiction we have created as evidence that there is nothing absolute in life, that everything is relative, which leads eventually to nihilism.

It isn’t so much that I question this tenet. It’s more that I question the converse which Rand is criticizing. It turns out a lot of this book is, for me, a straw man argument: a whole lot of the immoral collectivist thought that damages and imprisons the Men of the Mind is actually Christian thought – the idea of Original Sin, the doctrine that knowledge of good and evil led to man’s fall from paradise, the idea that suffering in life leads to bliss in the afterlife, and the basic sundering of spirit from body – and I don’t agree with any of that. So for a thousand pages, I was told that I’m an evil man who’s destroying what humanity could and should be – because of my Christian dogma. And, well: nope. I’m not a nihilist, either, so all the declarations that reality is knowable and that we can act based on our knowledge weren’t challenging for me. So I don’t know how much this philosophy changes my paradigm, and therefore how much it matters to me.

I also question the idea that there can’t be contradictions. I think maybe there can be. I get the idea that it is probably because of a mistaken assumption; when I teach paradox, I generally point out that most paradoxes rely on a specific perspective, and if you change the perspective you eliminate the paradox, which is that “Check your premises” shtick. But there are contradictions that, even if we know it is a mistake in perspective, we can’t resolve. Modern physics, for instance: Schrodinger’s cat leaps to mind. Telling me to check my premises isn’t going to fix that problem. So this one needs more thought.

Silly idea: all smart people think alike. Okay: Rand was trying to make a philosophical point about the ideal Man. Her ideal Man is an industrialist, an extremely productive person. Okay, sure. The thing is: none of the Men of the Mind are drunks. None of them are teetotalers. All of them smoke. (There is a TON of smoking in this book. Pretty funny, really.) None of them are bipolar, or manic-depressive, or have traumatic pasts. None of them are cantankerous, or impolite, or smelly; none of them habitually refuse to wear pants or eat nothing but cornbread. None of them are even gay, which would seem like the simplest way to have some variety in the characters, if you don’t go for the equally obvious choice of having a couple of them not be honkies. They all love classical music – not a jazz fan, or a blues fan, or a country and western fan in the bunch. They all believe in the value of money, and in the essential goodness of capitalism, and of productivity. They are all rationalists. When the leader tells them his secret, none of them disagree, or refuse to join the strike. (I should say: one of the real main characters, probably the most important character in the book, does refuse to join the strike. But she does it while agreeing with everything the strikers believe. Even she doesn’t think differently; she’s just more optimistic, or less beaten up by the world, than the rest of them. She’s also pretty much the only woman. Coincidence?!?) None of them are vegetarians. None of them have pets. All of them are open-minded about the same things. All of them feel the same way about everything. Now, that level of conformity follows logically from an ideal based only on a couple of very simple tenets – A is A, man is rational, only trading can be moral – but it really undercuts the message of individualism. I think it’s pretty well exemplified by the fact that at least four of the Men of the Mind are all in love with the same woman, the one female main character, the railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart. (By the way: Rand has some spectacular character names, particularly among the bad guys; but a lot of her heroes have really dumb names. Midas Mulligan is one of the dumbest. Ragnar Danneskjold and Francisco d’Anconia are fine, but a bit of a mouthful. Ellis Wyatt and John Galt are good. But Dagny Taggart? Yick.) And even though she chooses only one of them in the end, they are all perfectly happy for her, and perfectly at peace with all of their rivals for her affection. Come on: not one of them is petty? I mean, we’re all rational beings, sure, but we’re still human.

Idea that I want to label as silly but Rand seems really damn sure of it so maybe it needs more thought: compromise is evil. When John Galt speaks at the end of the book and reveals an encapsulated version of Rand’s philosophy which this book is supposed to represent, he talks about morality and right and wrong. And he says that the people in the middle of a moral argument are the worst people, the greatest evil. Someone who takes the wrong side is at least taking a side, even if they are wrong about it; people who want to compromise are the real villains. So for me, this is complete bullshit; compromise is how humans build society and survive with each other. But this book is one large slippery-slope argument; the looters – like me, with my support for taxes and public welfare – have survived as long as we have while leeching off of the Men of the Mind because the M.o.t.M. are willing to compromise with us. They give us a little; then we ask for a little more. They give us more; we ask for the rest. They give us the rest; we ask for their lives. The book depicts this as inevitable, and the only solution is what the M.o.t.M. do in this book: they stop it dead, they walk away, they say “No more!” and go on strike. Leaving all of us looters to die in chaos and bloodshed, whining pathetically that it’s all their fault.

Now, as a public school teacher, I understand the danger of a slippery slope. My school is always asking me for a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. It does seem as though taxes just keep going up and up; the American Revolution was fought over a tax burden of about 1-3% of total income. But the fact that compromise shifts you off of your extreme position doesn’t mean that you can no longer make a stand: it means you have to select a new position somewhere more towards the middle, and stand there. Whether you stand on the far side or three steps in from the edge makes no difference; in either case, the strength of your stance is the same, whatever determination you can muster to maintaining that position. The difference is that a position somewhere in the middle acknowledges that other people have minds, as well, and probably have a point in their argument; believing Rand’s argument that I must trust my judgment above anyone else’s doesn’t mean I never listen to anything anyone else says, ever. And it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to get along with other humans, which requires compromise. Rand seems to believe that life should be a constant competition, and if you aren’t the winner, then you should get the hell out of the way. Personally I think that damns the vast majority of humanity to essential worthlessness, which seems bad. But then, I don’t really like the majority of humans very much, so maybe there’s something to it.

Since I have to take an extreme position, though, I’m going to call this idea silly.

 

In the end I think there are better ways to get the same set of ideas, rather than reading this book. Then again, the book is still selling, still being read; maybe this really is the best form of the argument. Maybe there’s something good here that I missed, or didn’t appreciate. I will note that if you happen to be a tall, thin, money-loving independent American businessman, then accepting the ideas in this book would make you the pinnacle of humanity and the source of all good things in the world: that is a very attractive reason to think Rand has a point. If you are one of those.

But as a liberal, moderate, government employee, and member of the unproductive bourgeois, I guess I’m not one of the Men of the Mind. That’s okay: I don’t want to die, as every other character in the book does when society collapses and returns to the Dark Ages; but I also wouldn’t want to hang out with those people. They don’t read enough. And clearly, I read too much.

 

COROLLARY  DISCUSSION:

After I posted a link to this on Facebook, a friend and former teaching colleague of mine, who has spent far more time reading and thinking about Rand’s work than I have, commented on that link about this review/explanation of Atlas Shrugged. Her comments came in two parts because of the permissible size of Facebook comments (I had to do the same thing in my reply to her); I responded to the first half but not the second, and then she replied to me. All of that discussion is below; I’m appending it because her explanations of Rand’s thoughts and the corrections she made to my above explanations are both important and useful. There are still some things I disagree with, and still things that require more thought; the second half of her initial response requires more reading of Rand’s non-fiction, which I plan to get to eventually, and until I do there’s no point in continuing our discussion of compromise — but it’s going to end up being a sticking point, I think. At any rate, if you read this post, please do go on and read this discussion: it is very helpful. Any further discussion is entirely welcome in the comments.

The only formatting change I’m going to make is to mark quotations we both used. All her quotations are from me; I quoted myself and her response, and marked it as such. The name-links lead to our respective Facebook pages.

 

Jessica Porter Dusty, I enjoyed reading your take on Atlas Shrugged. Your review is more thoughtful than many I have read. I first read Atlas Shrugged about three years ago and have spent a considerable amount of time since then mulling things over and sorting through the different pieces of Rand’s philosophy to see if they stand. Your review is fair in some areas but off in others. There are several places in particular where the book’s big ideas are not quite accurately represented—and since many people are never actually going to read Atlas Shrugged but will look to reviews like this for a summary instead, I think it’s only fair to push back on a few things.
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“The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men…. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.”

-This summation is incorrect. It’s not that the producers are upset that society merely provides nothing in return for their contributions; it’s that what society does provide in return is contempt, derision, and threats. “Society” also steals from the producers, taking values through violence that were not offered freely, value-for-value. For the producers, this is a matter of justice. The framing of their motives is important, and your framing obscures the injustice that underlies the trade imbalance between the producers and the consumers. Your summary frames everyone who is not a producer as being a looter worthy of total contempt. For Rand, though, the label of evil is for the James Taggarts of the world: those whose entire mode of operation is looting and non-thought. Not all lesser-producers are this way in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand does not condemn all of the non-industrialists as she condemns James Taggart. What distinguishes good people from bad people, in Rand’s view, is essentially: are you trying to focus and think, or are you purposefully trying to do the opposite? Taggart seeks non-thought and non-production and is entirely happy to mooch off of others. A person could be weak, lazy, and incapable but yet still be seeking rationality, pursuing the full achievement of their values, and trying to be better. I think Rand would, in that case, not categorize that person as evil at all but as a person who is at least making a noble attempt.

“Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being.”

-This is not the case. First of all, I don’t think that Rand would even agree that there is a “purpose of humanity” at all. Individuals have purposes. Humanity as a collective does not. For each individual, though, Rand’s take is that each person’s purpose is not production, but rather the achievement of their personal happiness (which you discuss later in your post). Production of some sort is necessary for the achievement of values, but Rand is in no way stating or suggesting that industrial production is the purpose that every individual should pursue. She is also not suggesting that those who do not pursue industry are any less noble or valuable as human beings than those that do. Also, for Rand, the ideal human being is John Galt (and all of the characteristics that define him), not the “industrialist” in a disembodied, abstract sense. Galt’s skill set includes innovator, inventor, and philosopher. He is a man of thought and action, moral and practical. He is not a stand-in for Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Among other things, I think Atlas Shrugged was a thank you note from Rand to the industrialists who made the Western world great, and this is why many of the heroes in this book happen to be industrialists. In The Fountainhead, by contrast, Rand’s hero is a starving artist.

“The book argues that any gift is a sin.”

-No, the book does not argue that any gift is a sin. Rather, any sacrifice is a sin. A sacrifice, according to Rand, is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.” For example, in the book, when Hank Reardon tolerates his wife’s denigration of his life and his values, he makes a sacrifice. Hank is giving up the full expression of his own pride and accomplishments for the sake of getting along with a wife who is an awful person. He does this merely because he assumes without giving it much thought that this is expected of him. Hank gives up (until he meets Dagny) the opportunity to be with people who actually value him for who he really is and respect him for what he values for the sake of keeping up appearances and doing what society expects a person to do. Rand would agree that sacrificial charity is evil, but she would not agree that all charity or gifts are evil.

“Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal [of love as being selfish rather than altruistic]; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch.”

-It sounds like your trouble with this is that you don’t see how a love-based relationship like marriage or parenting could be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. Ask a parent: Is your life richer for having had children? If their answer is no, then their experience of parenting would fit your framing and would be considered altruism. If their answer is yes, however, then the act of parenting, even though it takes a huge amount of work, also brings huge rewards. For many people, choosing to parent is a choice that is made in order to bring joy and fulfillment to life. By Rand’s definition, this is selfishness, not altruism. Your analysis neglects the fact that relationships do bring enormous values to many people. Watching a child you love grow up and experience the world, for example, is worth more than what it costs to be a parent for many people (which is not to say that being a parent doesn’t cost something). Same with marriage. Does marriage have a cost? Absolutely. But many people choose marriage because the rewards it brings outweigh the costs. This is not altruistic. For Rand, love is 100% a selfish act, according to her definition of selfishness, which may be worth looking into further.

“Anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal.”

-Be careful not to equivocate on the concept of charity as it is used in the book. If a person supports forced, sacrificial charity, then according to Rand, yes, that is bad. But if a person supports the trading of value for value, which includes non-sacrificial charity, then that is great. Also, Eddie Willers is not one of the leading industrialists but is also not characterized as a mustache-twisting criminal. What is different about Eddie that causes Rand to frame him in noble terms even though he is not in the ranks of Galt, etc? This matters. If you perceive one of Rand’s points as being that if a person is not a super star Superman industrialist, they are an evil, pathetic loser, you may be reading your own concerns into the book.

Jessica Porter

“Because in Rand’s eyes, we all have the same values, namely that we are all happiest when we are being productive, and I question that because Jeffrey Dahmer was happiest when he was murdering and eating people “

-A valid question, yet this overlooks the fact that rationality and reason are absolute requirements for true happiness. Galt sums it up well when he says, “Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.” I am no expert on Jeffrey Dahmer, but I doubt very much that Dahmer’s actions fall into the category of non-contradictory, non-destructive joy. I suspect one would find a great number of contradictions in Dahmer’s personal philosophy.

“It turns out a lot of this book is, for me, a straw man argument: a whole lot of the immoral collectivist thought that damages and imprisons the Men of the Mind is actually Christian thought …. So for a thousand pages, I was told that I’m an evil man who’s destroying what humanity could and should be – because of my Christian dogma. And, well: nope. I’m not a nihilist, either, so all the declarations that reality is knowable and that we can act based on our knowledge weren’t challenging for me. So I don’t know how much this philosophy changes my paradigm, and therefore how much it matters to me.”

-If you don’t think that Rand’s label of evil applies to you, then why are you sure that throughout the entire book, she is saying you are a horrible person? I don’t think Rand’s criticism is so much against Christianity as it is against the altruist morality, which is 100% not exclusive to Christianity. Rand’s background was an atheist dictatorship rather than a Christian one, and as far as I know, she reviled and wanted to destroy socialism much more so than she did Christianity (although she hated Christianity as well). What makes you think that her philosophical criticisms are targeted primarily at Christian dogma?

“Compromise is how humans build society and survive with each other.”

-I recommend that you read the essay, “The Anatomy of Compromise” by Rand.

“Rand seems to believe that life should be a constant competition, and if you aren’t the winner, then you should get the hell out of the way. Personally I think that damns the vast majority of humanity to essential worthlessness, which seems bad. But then, I don’t really like the majority of humans very much, so maybe there’s something to it.”

-Where does Rand say that life should be a constant competition and that if you aren’t a winner, you should get the hell out of the way? That is not an idea I have encountered in my readings of Rand. Where are you getting this? She definitely does not shy away from judging people, but nowhere does she advise against thinking through other people’s ideas, having friends, acknowledging that other people have minds, and pursuing the values that are unique to you personally (not everyone is a steel magnate). You frame this as if Rand is some sort of non-human Nazi with a riding crop incapable of living any sort of thoughtful life with other human beings. That, I think, is a bit of a caricature. You have to take the whole of Rand’s philosophy into account, where there is plenty of room for love, connection, and thought. Compromise, not so much, but again, you should read “The Anatomy of Compromise” for more details.

 

Theoden Humphrey

Me in blog:'”The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men…. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.”‘

You: -This summation is incorrect. It’s not that the producers are upset that society merely provides nothing in return for their contributions; it’s that what society does provide in return is contempt, derision, and threats. “Society” also steals from the producers, taking values through violence that were not offered freely, value-for-value. For the producers, this is a matter of justice. The framing of their motives is important, and your framing obscures the injustice that underlies the trade imbalance between the producers and the consumers. Your summary frames everyone who is not a producer as being a looter worthy of total contempt. For Rand, though, the label of evil is for the James Taggarts of the world: those whose entire mode of operation is looting and non-thought. Not all lesser-producers are this way in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand does not condemn all of the non-industrialists as she condemns James Taggart. What distinguishes good people from bad people, in Rand’s view, is essentially: are you trying to focus and think, or are you purposefully trying to do the opposite? Taggart seeks non-thought and non-production and is entirely happy to mooch off of others. A person could be weak, lazy, and incapable but yet still be seeking rationality, pursuing the full achievement of their values, and trying to be better. I think Rand would, in that case, not categorize that person as evil at all but as a person who is at least making a noble attempt.

Me now: You’re right, I should have included the concept of justice and injustice; it is critical to Rand’s explanation of this situation. I don’t know that I agree with her description of society’s treatment of producers, that the injustice of a trade imbalance, as you describe it, leads to contempt, derision, and threats; I suppose that is the distinction, that it is evildoers like Taggart who take us from – can I say “mere injustice?” I don’t mean to belittle the problem, but I do see a distinction between the injustice involved in taking the production of people, and doubling down on that injustice by offering them contempt, derision and threats. Taggart and his ilk take it to that point. Society – “only” – steals from the producers. I should have talked about the theft.

I don’t know that I saw that critical distinction about thought and focus being enough to earn Rand’s approbation. Yes, Taggart seeks non-thought, I saw that; but I’m not sure I agree that this book depicts a world where a lazy, weak, incapable person, who is seeking to get better, is valuable. There is a set of evildoers who are the real villains – but the workers at the 20th Century Plant, and the citizens of Starnesville who return to savagery as a result of what Jed Starnes’s heirs do, are not good. They are not as villainous as those heirs, and the guy at the end, the drifter with the clean collar – is it Jeff Allen? – whom Dagny gives a job to, is clearly one of those people who has done wrong by participating in the corruption of the 20th Century plant, but is trying to do better now, and he receives positive treatment from Dagny and from Rand. So I see what you’re saying. But he seemed the exception. I felt like the book was tremendously critical of everyone who was not on board with Galt’s ideas, in general. It seemed like ignorance was not much of an excuse. Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy, since the villains suffer as well.

Me in blog: “Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being.”

You: -This is not the case. First of all, I don’t think that Rand would even agree that there is a “purpose of humanity” at all. Individuals have purposes. Humanity as a collective does not. For each individual, though, Rand’s take is that each person’s purpose is not production, but rather the achievement of their personal happiness (which you discuss later in your post). Production of some sort is necessary for the achievement of values, but Rand is in no way stating or suggesting that industrial production is the purpose that every individual should pursue. She is also not suggesting that those who do not pursue industry are any less noble or valuable as human beings than those that do. Also, for Rand, the ideal human being is John Galt (and all of the characteristics that define him), not the “industrialist” in a disembodied, abstract sense. Galt’s skill set includes innovator, inventor, and philosopher. He is a man of thought and action, moral and practical. He is not a stand-in for Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Among other things, I think Atlas Shrugged was a thank you note from Rand to the industrialists who made the Western world great, and this is why many of the heroes in this book happen to be industrialists. In The Fountainhead, by contrast, Rand’s hero is a starving artist.

Me now: I was confused by the idea of purpose in this book. The achievement of personal happiness comes from achievement of values, which requires some form of production; doesn’t that mean that productivity is, if not THE purpose of a human life, a critical element of it? I got lost in the idea of what is good and what is purposeful and what is valuable. I’m not explaining my confusion well, I know. I do understand that industrial production is not the key, but it is telling to me that the focus of much of Rand’s praise is related to industrial production. She talks about how innovators and inventors and industrialists have saved us time, and therefore life, along with providing the means of sustaining life, through increasing our productivity; she doesn’t say as much about the value of, say, medicine as a means of saving lives, or the value of producing art. She has a doctor character in Galt’s Gulch, so it isn’t that industrialists are the only good men – but it seemed like they were the best men. I see your point about Galt’s various qualities, but there is also the point that he specifically avoids academia to go work for a commercial, industrial concern; isn’t there a higher value, then, placed on that sphere of activity? You say it, too: “the industrialists who made the Western world great.” Did they? Is that who did it? Then doesn’t that mean that there is indeed a bias towards industrialists?

Theoden Humphrey Me in blog: “The book argues that any gift is a sin.”

You: -No, the book does not argue that any gift is a sin. Rather, any sacrifice is a sin. A sacrifice, according to Rand, is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.” For example, in the book, when Hank Reardon tolerates his wife’s denigration of his life and his values, he makes a sacrifice. Hank is giving up the full expression of his own pride and accomplishments for the sake of getting along with a wife who is an awful person. He does this merely because he assumes without giving it much thought that this is expected of him. Hank gives up (until he meets Dagny) the opportunity to be with people who actually value him for who he really is and respect him for what he values for the sake of keeping up appearances and doing what society expects a person to do. Rand would agree that sacrificial charity is evil, but she would not agree that all charity or gifts are evil.

Me now: Okay, yes, but if a gift comes with a reward in return, then it isn’t a gift. If it is better for me to use the word “sacrifice,” so as not to taint the idea of gift-giving, then sure; I’m not trying to critique Rand by saying “She’s against BIRTHDAY PRESENTS!” I have an issue with the idea that all sacrifice is a sin, and I used the word “gift” to signify a sacrifice of value that doesn’t come with an equal return of value.

Me in blog: “Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal [of love as being selfish rather than altruistic]; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch.”

You: -It sounds like your trouble with this is that you don’t see how a love-based relationship like marriage or parenting could be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. Ask a parent: Is your life richer for having had children? If their answer is no, then their experience of parenting would fit your framing and would be considered altruism. If their answer is yes, however, then the act of parenting, even though it takes a huge amount of work, also brings huge rewards. For many people, choosing to parent is a choice that is made in order to bring joy and fulfillment to life. By Rand’s definition, this is selfishness, not altruism. Your analysis neglects the fact that relationships do bring enormous values to many people. Watching a child you love grow up and experience the world, for example, is worth more than what it costs to be a parent for many people (which is not to say that being a parent doesn’t cost something). Same with marriage. Does marriage have a cost? Absolutely. But many people choose marriage because the rewards it brings outweigh the costs. This is not altruistic. For Rand, love is 100% a selfish act, according to her definition of selfishness, which may be worth looking into further.

Me now: Correct, I don’t see how a love-based relationship can be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. I suppose again I’m considering altruism as something other than sacrifice; I think of it as meaning “kindness.” Totally selfless kindness, if that is the definition (and according to Google it is, so I suppose I’m wrong on this), is not what I think of in regards to love-based relationships; I agree that we enter into those relationships because we gain rewards from them. I don’t think anyone thinks differently: I didn’t see Lillian Rearden as a realistic character. Is she? Is that really how people are in a marriage, demanding that the other person destroy themselves? So is there a marriage that isn’t the pure trading of value between Galt and Dagny, but isn’t the abusive marriage of the Reardens?

I think I’m having trouble understanding the distinction between trading value for value, and acting in a kind way in order to receive emotional rewards – or rather, I think there’s a distinction there that Rand maybe wouldn’t make. Maybe it is the harsh criticism of acting on feelings that runs throughout the book; I know that’s because the non-rational characters use “feelings” as an excuse for their irrational behavior, but it was hard – it is hard – not to feel incorrect whenever I talk about feelings. Like that last sentence: I see it as wrong because I said “to feel incorrect.” I know, happiness is the goal, and so if parenting brings true happiness, then that is value returned for the sacrifice (But it isn’t a sacrifice if it makes me happy. Still confused about which word to use.). But it doesn’t come from the kid, it comes from the existence of the kid; the kid doesn’t return value specifically. It’s not a trade. I think I see your point, but it is confusing.

Me in blog: “Anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal.”

You: -Be careful not to equivocate on the concept of charity as it is used in the book. If a person supports forced, sacrificial charity, then according to Rand, yes, that is bad. But if a person supports the trading of value for value, which includes non-sacrificial charity, then that is great. Also, Eddie Willers is not one of the leading industrialists but is also not characterized as a mustache-twisting criminal. What is different about Eddie that causes Rand to frame him in noble terms even though he is not in the ranks of Galt, etc? This matters. If you perceive one of Rand’s points as being that if a person is not a super star Superman industrialist, they are an evil, pathetic loser, you may be reading your own concerns into the book.

Me now: What exactly is non-sacrificial charity?

You’re right about Eddie Willers, and Cherryl Taggart is another one. I do not think that it is simply a dichotomy of John Galt and James Taggart. But Eddie and Cherryl both die when everything falls apart, so I dunno – didn’t seem like they were all that positive as role models for the reader. I had trouble discerning where the criticism of the looters ended and the – what, the pity? – for the regular folks who weren’t either the villains or the victims began. I wasn’t sure how much the regular folks should have been working to avoid the villainy of the looters. Are they villains to some extent because they allow the looters to control the government? Because they vote for the government officials, because they believe the propaganda, and they are not always properly grateful to the men of the mind? Because they don’t understand what the men of the mind understand?

And of course I’m reading my own concerns into the book; am I not supposed to? Am I not supposed to see how this relates to me, how I fit into this worldview? Was I supposed to read this book just as an escape, a pastime? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. Are you saying that I am feeling my own guilt for my own actions and seeing Rand’s criticism of regular folk too harshly, is that it? I have no idea how to answer that, in any case. Don’t know how to step out of my own perceptions and critique them. I will say I have no idea how Rand would have seen me (I’m pretty sure I’m not a villain, but I am not a hero. I do not know if Rand would have seen me as rational. Please don’t answer that for me; I am going to continue reading Rand and figure it out for myself.), and that probably contributes to my overall confusion here. I did say a lot of this needs more thought.

Jessica Porter

1. “I’m not sure I agree that this book depicts a world where a lazy, weak, incapable person, who is seeking to get better, is valuable…. I felt like the book was tremendously critical of everyone who was not on board with Galt’s ideas, in general….Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy, since the villains suffer as well.”

I agree with you that the book is not centered around lazy, weak, incapable people seeking to be better who are painted as noble. You are right about that. But Rand’s book is primarily a novel with a plot, and just because she doesn’t place many characters like that within this particular plot, that doesn’t mean anything in any moral sense about those characters. Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a novel; it doesn’t seek to answer every question of Objectivism, cross every T, and refute every objection that could ever exist. There is much that goes unaddressed. Weak people trying to be better would be one of those things that Rand does not focus on in this book, although she addresses moral questions related to that in her other writings. But mostly, my point here is that just because Rand’s world in this particular novel does not include a specific thing that you are interested in or an idea that you want to see doesn’t mean that her philosophy rejects that thing. You probably wouldn’t write a pirate novel, for example, with large chapters focused on the pirate captain’s many children growing up alone without a father on an exotic island somewhere if their story didn’t contribute to the book you were trying to write. As a side note, Rand expressed in her theory of aesthetics that in any work of art, absolutely every element is and must be essential. And this, I think, is why weak yet noble characters are de-emphasized in A.S. They are just not relevant to the story Rand wanted to write, and I don’t think it’s useful to draw moral conclusions from their absence.

Also, you are right that characters like Eddie, the train hobo, and Cherryl are exceptions and that Rand expresses general criticism toward most of the Joe Schmos in the book. I think this is because Rand’s view of the average person is that most people just kind of go with the flow while the leaders set the tone for a society. Rand thought that most folks take their philosophical and political cues from the leaders and repeat whatever the leaders emit. But if the moral leaders of the day are James Taggart and his ilk and are setting the tone for the millions under them, people will likely behave badly. But that is more a tragedy of circumstance than it is a moral failing, I think. To what extent it is a moral failing, though—that is not addressed in A.S. as far as I can remember. I think the resentment you are reading in Rand’s tone has more to do with the worldview the common people have accepted from their leaders than with the fact that they are not industrialists or producers like Galt. There are two classes of people that I think you might be conflating: actual looters (people who actively contribute to and participate in stealing from the producers and create moral justification for doing so) and low-level producers (who don’t participate in politics and just do their low level jobs every day). It’s the first group, the people who forward along the looting meme, that Rand really has a hard time with.

And finally: “Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy.” In Rand’s universe, unlike in the Christian moral universe, for example, people don’t necessarily get what’s coming to them in the moral sense. There is no karma (although her heroes always win—but that’s a different topic, I think). Rand’s point is not that what happens to people is what is just. I think her point is more that what happens to people is a combination of their personal effort, luck, their environmental circumstances, and the kind of society that they live in. So, when good people like Eddie suffer and die, Eddie doesn’t suffer because he is ignoble, he suffers because the society of Atlas Shrugged is impossible to live in.

2. “Doesn’t that mean that productivity is, if not THE purpose of a human life, a critical element of it?”

Well, yes. It is. I thought that you were trying to say that industrial production in a sterile, pre-selected, universal sense, is the collective purpose of humanity, and that industrialists are morally superior to every other kind of person in Rand’s view. I guess it really just depends on what you mean by production, and I was not sure what you meant. For Rand, production really just means, “the application of reason to the problem of survival.” Or, to quote her further (this is one of my favorite quotes on this subject), “Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes—which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification—which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.“ So, yes. Production in this sense would be a necessary component of any full, human life.

3. “It is telling to me that the focus of much of Rand’s praise is related to industrial production. She talks about how innovators and inventors and industrialists have saved us time, and therefore life, along with providing the means of sustaining life, through increasing our productivity; she doesn’t say as much about the value of, say, medicine as a means of saving lives, or the value of producing art…..You say it, too: “the industrialists who made the Western world great.” Did they? Is that who did it? Then doesn’t that mean that there is indeed a bias towards industrialists?””

Rand’s point in A.S. is not that industrialists as human beings are morally superior to doctors and artists; rather, her point is that society does not recognize the enormous value that innovators have added to the world. In Rand’s view, all rational people are equally moral, but in a purely quantitative sense (entirely removed from the realm of morality) industrialists and innovators have been humanity’s greatest benefactors (after philosophers and perhaps artists). But people already know that philosophers and artists provide us with great ideas and inspiring works. Philosophers and artists are much less controversial than industrialists, who are painted as greedy, exploitative, unfeeling robber barons who love to watch children go hungry if it pads their wallets. Because of the efforts of a few great innovators (great in the sense that what they did was extraordinarily helpful to the lives of others, not great in the sense that they are more moral than any other rational person), the world is exponentially easier and more pleasant to live in. This is just a matter of economic fact, and it is a fact that was particularly important to Rand, as she saw society as completely overlooking this. Take for example, the person who invented modern agronomy: Norman Borlaug. Borlaug’s contributions, and others made billions of lives possible at the most basic level: he made it possible for them to eat. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand is trying to dramatize the millions of people starving that we in our non-Atlas Shrugged world didn’t have to see because of contributions like Norman Borlaug’s. So, yes, she does elevate industrialists, but she does so in order to reveal them as benefactors, not to christen them as the moral gods of humanity. And she does this because people do not commonly see it.

Jessica Porter

4. “But if a gift comes with a reward in return, then it isn’t a gift…. I have an issue with the idea that all sacrifice is a sin, and I used the word “gift” to signify a sacrifice of value that doesn’t come with an equal return of value.”

Really? Then is it not a gift if I treat my mom to a tour of the Japanese Gardens on Mother’s Day and then give her a gift card to the gardening store? I get a huge return of value from that—I love to see my mom feel loved and happy. Creating a situation where I get to make my mom’s life a little happier brings a lot of value to me because a world where my mom is happy is a world I want to be in. If I hated my mom, though, and if I bought her flowers for Mother’s Day even though I resent her for every moment of my childhood, would that be a proper gift according to your definition? If I were to take my mom to the Japanese Gardens and then say, “But you have to pay for lunch so that we are even,” then I would agree with you that that is not a gift. But in Rand’s world, it’s not that there is some God of Value-for-Value Payments hanging out in the sky calculating who owes what to whom. It’s more that each individual should act for her own benefit. She should do things that make the world more like a place she wants to live. If giving a gift to someone makes the world better for you, then giving that gift is not a sacrifice. It doesn’t matter where the “payback” comes from or what sort of currency it’s in. All that matters is that you receive some value from giving the thing and that you aren’t trading a higher value away to the universe for a lesser one. It does not matter where the value comes from (whether it comes from the exact person you gave the gift to or not).

5. “Correct, I don’t see how a love-based relationship can be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. I suppose again I’m considering altruism as something other than sacrifice; I think of it as meaning “kindness.” Totally selfless kindness, if that is the definition (and according to Google it is, so I suppose I’m wrong on this), is not what I think of in regards to love-based relationships; I agree that we enter into those relationships because we gain rewards from them. I don’t think anyone thinks differently: I didn’t see Lillian Rearden as a realistic character. Is she? Is that really how people are in a marriage, demanding that the other person destroy themselves? So is there a marriage that isn’t the pure trading of value between Galt and Dagny, but isn’t the abusive marriage of the Reardens?”

I am a bit confused by your confusion. First you say that you don’t see how love-based relationships can be fundamentally selfish rather than altruistic. But then you say that you disagree with the definition of altruism in the dictionary, and you think of altruism as meaning something other than what Rand is saying that it means. (“Kindness” is not at all what Rand is talking about when she talks about altruism, just like a stingy lack of regard for others is not what she means when she talks about selfishness.) And then you say that people do enter into relationships because people gain rewards from relationships. And then you ask whether Lillian Rearden is a realistic character. I am not quite following. Rand is pretty clear about what she means by altruism and what she means by selfishness. And if people enter into love relationships because they gain rewards and they want to be kind to their loved one….then isn’t that an internally consistent way of framing selfishness? Why would the existence of a non-abusive, non-value-for-value marriage be relevant here?

6. “Maybe it is the harsh criticism of acting on feelings that runs throughout the book; I know that’s because the non-rational characters use “feelings” as an excuse for their irrational behavior, but it was hard – it is hard – not to feel incorrect whenever I talk about feelings.”

It’s not acting on feelings that Rand condemns, but acting on feelings as a primary. Emotions are supposed to be the shortcut to knowing how to respond to the world; there’s supposed to be reasoned-out values bolstering them from below. Rand condemns those who respond to the world from feelings that they themselves do not understand and do not want to understand. Feelings themselves are not being criticized. What’s being criticized is irrational action based on unexamined emotion.

7. “What exactly is non-sacrificial charity?”

Non-sacrificial charity would be the same thing as taking your mom to the Japanese Gardens and paying for lunch because her happiness makes you happy. Or giving money to a cause you believe in because doing so contributes to the world becoming more of the place you want it to be. It is giving away a value in order to receive an equal or greater value without expecting something in trade from the person who receives the gift.

8. “And of course I’m reading my own concerns into the book; am I not supposed to? Am I not supposed to see how this relates to me, how I fit into this worldview? Was I supposed to read this book just as an escape, a pastime? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. Are you saying that I am feeling my own guilt for my own actions and seeing Rand’s criticism of regular folk too harshly, is that it?”

I don’t mean that you should not read the book with your concerns and worldview in mind, and I especially don’t mean to say that you must be expressing your own feelings of guilt. Not at all. I do mean that the concerns you (or anyone) brings to a book this challenging can obscure what Rand is actually getting at. If we take for granted, for example, that altruism is just kindness based on a sort of vague, culturally absorbed definition, then Rand’s treatment of altruism will probably seem contradictory or bizarre, but it isn’t either of those things. But it can be difficult to see what Rand is talking about at times if a person is not able to set aside the culturally-absorbed definition of altruism, for example. I say this after having personally struggled a lot with my own concerns clouding my ability to really follow some of Rand’s ideas all the way to the end at first. So, I did not mean any insult. If I offended, it was not intended.

30-Day Slump

(Alternate Title:

)

Today – Presidents’ Day – is the 30th day that President Lump has been in office. It’s the end of our free trial, our money back warranty period; now we can’t return the product any more.

So. How’s it going? Let’s check in.

I think that President Sump got elected on the back of an unlikely coalition of monied interests and angry Americans. His lack of a background in politics, which would have told us where his interests lay and where his votes have been cast, and the fact that he is a reality television star in every sense of the word (By which I mean: he purports to represent himself completely honestly, but we all know he’s edited and scripted and molded, folded, spindled, and mutilated, until he’s actually the furthest thing from reality.), have allowed various groups to color him in according to their own imagined scheme. Anti-Islamists dreamed he would eliminate radical Islam (or even better, ALL Islam); Republicans hoped he would put a stop to the Liberals taking over the country; wealthy people believed he would help make them even wealthier. They all hoped he would be a good choice, and enough (just barely enough) of them voted for him that now we get to find out what happens when people stop being polite – and start getting real.

I see Mr. Rump, then, as an experiment. It’s an experiment I wouldn’t have chosen personally, but it is one I am participating in; and I, too, had my hopes about what he would and would not be like as a President. I’m sure we’ve all seen the memes about giving him a chance, and hoping that he fails is like hoping that your pilot crashes the plane; that’s all well and good, as far as it goes. The question is: how far does it go?

That’s the point of this blog. We’ve gone 30 days. Has it been enough to see what has happened to our hopes and dreams? What do you say we give him a progress report?

The Republican establishment: The Republicans in Congress, who opposed him, waffled about him, and then supported him, had a very specific plan in mind, I think, when they decided to back Clump. And they did back him, whatever people think about Stump’s intention or capacity to oppose Washington institutions and “drain the swamp.” The standard Republican strategy is to use social wedge issues to get elected, and then completely ignore those same social issues in favor of cutting taxes and regulations as part of sweetheart deals with various industries who lobby them, and then hire them as lobbyists. (Thomas Frank’s excellent book What’s the Matter with Kansas? explains this lucidly and completely) So since they have gerrymandered a lock on the majority in Congress, what did they need Plump for? Easy: he’s a distraction. He’s the dancing clown we’re all staring at while McConnell and Ryan et al tear apart the regulatory state and the tax base.

How’s it working for them? Well, they’re tearing apart the regulatory state and the tax base, and Crump’s getting the majority of the heat. They are not forgotten, though; the curtain hiding the man in the corner of The Great and Powerful Oz’s chamber is not really covering them very well. They need Grump to allow a few more pipelines, nominate a few more paper men to head important bureaucracies. Hold a few more manic press conferences. Overall, though, they’re probably pretty satisfied. Let’s see what they do to Obamacare.

Republican voters: The vast majority of people who would identify themselves as Republicans are probably not happy with who he has become. They wanted him to champion their specific causes, and he’s not been doing much of that; he’s been championing mostly himself. But this is not news: generally speaking, candidates quickly become a disappointment to the voters who got them in there. I voted for Obama in 2008 because I wanted him to end the war, close Guantanamo, regulate Wall Street, and create an effective single-payer health care system. So I guess one out of four ain’t — fuuuuuck.

Same thing here. Two minor differences: Mr. Chump has disappointed people more quickly, I think, than most presidents do; witness the rally he felt a need to hold in Florida this past weekend, trying to stir up some excitement. 30 days and people are already drawing away, hissing in breath between their teeth. And two: most of the time, candidates who become Presidents disappoint because they moderate their stances: once they’re in and they no longer need to fire people up, they start looking to compromise with the establishment. Gump (Sorry, Forrest) hasn’t moderated at all: he’s just shown that his more extreme stances will meet resistance. I don’t know if that shows his voters that he can’t get things done, or if it shows them that the rest of the government isn’t on board the Gump-Train.

The Democratic establishment: Could not be more miserable. Lost the entire government to a Three Stooges skit. Also couldn’t be much weaker about it. I mean, Jesus: they’re already talking about approving Gorsuch for the Supreme Court? When it should have been Merrick Garland almost a year ago now, and we all know it? What kills me is they don’t want to use the filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee for fear the Republicans will change the rules and take it away. Right, because Lord knows you don’t want to lose a weapon YOU WON’T EVEN USE. That would really suck.

Hey guys: the GOP got credibility by opposing everything the Democrats did under Obama with an almost religious fervor. What you need now is an equal credibility. Peace and negotiations come later, once you discover some strength. Suck it up and do your job, okay? And don’t tell me how much it sucks: mine sucks too, and I make less than a fifth of what you make, NOT counting bribes from lobbyists.

Democratic voters: In some ways, ecstatic. I mean, heartbroken after the actual election; but then they got determined, and they have stayed that way. Since the Democrats have largely been sitting on their laurels since the Clinton who won, it’s good that they are willing to get to work. I think it’s been good for them to do it, too, to actually take to the streets, to recognize what it is to build coalitions rather than simply imposing an orthodox viewpoint and ostracizing those who don’t conform. Let’s be clear: it’s not enough to be right, you also have to get enough people to agree with you. Listen to Hamilton sometime.

Moderates: Hoo boy: you thought Republican voters were upset. Always, ALWAYS, the candidate moderates when they get into office. Compromise is the only way things ever get done in a government built on checks and balances.

But nobody told Dump that.

If anything, he’s gotten more extreme as his attempts to follow through on his campaign promises have been stymied by the courts or the Congress or the public or the media or — is there anyone still on his side? I mean, I guess the First Lady. And Bannon. So I figure moderates who voted for Slump hoping that he would be a good middle-right statesman once he got into office? Not real happy with how it’s gone.

Libertarians: Well, I mean, libertarians hate everything anyway.

People who thought he had to be better than Clinton: HAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAhaaaaaa.

Start with the accusation that Clinton is a liar. Now: alternative facts. Then go to her ties to Wall Street and to billionaire donors with shady politics. Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, (fortunately withdrawn) Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Then how about that email thing? Right: I give you reading classified documents on an open air terrace at a golf resort, not to mention the Twitter Feed Heard ‘Round the World. And her apparent lack of personal charm and class?

Come on: that was shot before the election.

Frankly, I hope you people are unhappy.

People who were so angry over Bernie Sanders’s treatment that they wrote in his name or didn’t vote at all: Well, principles are important. But maybe a little less so now, hmmmm? “Voting for the lesser evil is still voting for evil.” Right: so is voting in such a way that you enable evil to win. I’m not saying that voting for Clinton wouldn’t have been evil: I mean, I don’t think it would have been, but I’m not in this group; those who are in this group may not have been able to stomach a vote for Clinton, and I get that. But when you literally throw away your vote — I don’t mean the people who voted for Stein or Johnson or another legitimate third party — you are making it more likely that either evil is going to win. Which means you’re voting for evil. And you got it.

Does it feel better to help evil when you have your back turned to it while you help?

Probably not.

Big business: 

Billionaires’ — Hold on a second — go back and watch that last one again. That video is priceless.

Right, where was I?

Billionaires’ Boy’s Club:

(By the way: did you know the last verse of that song is from the point of view of the President? Hm. Interesting.)

Speaking of presidents…

Vice President Mike Pence: Every time somebody mentions impeachment, I think his heart skips a beat. He signed onto this dog and pony show as the rational one, and that will stand him in good stead if the Mump ahead of him finally gets yanked out by the big hook. So considering how the first 30 days have gone, I assume he’s quite happy, indeed.

The Military: I assume they like how he keeps talking about increasing the military budget and buying newer, better equipment. If my job put me in harm’s way, and I could do it better with newer equipment, I’d want the same thing. Hell, if we didn’t have an unConstitutional standing army that has made us into the most war-like, invasive, intercessionist nation in history, I’d want the men and women of our military to have more money and better equipment. (Someday we will have the greatest National Guard in the world, and will offer hefty support to our allies and the UN — and nothing. Else. Think how far our military budget could go if we weren’t supporting hundreds of redundant bases around the world. But anyway.) They probably approve of his naming so many generals to his staff and cabinet. But they can’t be happy that he seems to be systematically alienating our allies and cutting off all lines of communication. I don’t believe our military wants to fight World War III, let alone start it.

The Alt-Right: I mean, Bannon, right? On the National Security Council, like Pennywise working in a daycare? And an attempted ban on Islamic immigrants? And a big ass wall?  Here y’go, fellers.

Fundamentalist Christians: So he’s not very Christian. But he’s opposing the Muslims, and he’s supporting the Israeli one-state solution. Along with all of the warmongering and hedonism, he certainly seems to be bringing about Judgment Day all the quicker.

And that’s . . . good, right? Right?

America’s Actual Enemies: If they’re crazy, then I assume they are planning to rise to the challenge, and see if they can out-loon President Grump. If they’re not crazy, surely they see how easy he will be to manipulate. Hell, any troll on Twitter can rile the guy up in 140 characters. This is, of course, lovely news for those who actually understand the importance of image politics and the cult of personality. I don’t really think that I do —  but I have no doubt that our enemies do, and they are probably doing this:

Everybody else in the world: All I can say is, I’m sorry. I don’t know if you had any hopes left in you after the election went how it did, but if you did, well — I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what my country has become.

Let me be clear: I actually still have hope. I am still hopeful that Mr. Trump (Yes, fine, sure I can use his actual name. President Donald J. Trump, okay? Bah, humbug.) will do no lasting harm to this country, and that he will satisfy a large number of people who have felt left behind by the progressive swing of the pendulum over the last few decades. That would be a good thing. In some ways, I think that’s all that can be hoped for with any president. I don’t know how much President Obama really accomplished –really — other than this: he did no harm. He didn’t hurt our international reputation, he didn’t break our government or our economy. The debt he created was already coming because of previous administrations and our Congress’s willingness to create new spending without finding ways to pay for it, and because of the financial crisis initiated by Wall Street. The wars he failed to stop, and the one he exacerbated by dealing weapons and flinging drones around like Rip Taylor chucking confetti, are all part of a quagmire that we were already in up to our tits. Jesus: do you realize that we propped up the Iranian government under the Shah, who came to power after the Allies invaded in 194-fucking-1? It goes that far back. So in the grand scheme, Obama did no harm. The problems of this country, the real ones, were not his fault, and I don’t think he made them worse, overall.

I hope I will be able to say the same for Trump. And if he makes people feel like they have a voice, like their vote counts, then that is all to the good.

And if he shows us all that what we really need to do is find a way to listen to each other so we can never, ever, EVER elect another jackass like this one — then I think his legacy will be complete.

I hope.

But that’s only good for my country, and our internal democracy. For the rest of the world? This must really be like looking down the barrel of a gun. And not because of Trump himself: but because 63 million Americans voted for him.

That’s the scary part.

How To Be Happier: Teenager Edition

This is an example essay I wrote for my AP Language class when they were assigned a Process Analysis. If it’s a little on the nose, well — it’s for teenagers.

 

How To Be Happier

Are you dissatisfied with your life?

You’re teenagers. Of course you are.

But that’s the bad news. (Okay, it’s probably not news. But how would you know? When was the last time you actually watched the news? I’m not even going to ask about reading it.) The good news is that you can fix this. You can change your daily routines, in simple, manageable ways, and the result will be improved satisfaction with your life. In fact, even more than that: your life will get clearly, demonstrably better. I guarantee it.

Let me tell you how. Step by step, so you don’t get lost. Pay attention.

 

Step One: Waking Up

You’re probably still tired. School does come early, doesn’t it? I don’t really have a solution, because even when researchers say school should start later, their suggestion is between 8am and 8:30, so it’s as good as it’s going to get; but I will say that often, catching just a few more minutes of sleep can make you feel a bit more – well, not happy, certainly, but resigned, at least; accepting, maybe – of your day’s new start and the requirement that you must now move, and act, and interact with someone other than your pillow. So the key to that is to minimize your time preparing for school (or work, on the weekends) in the morning. Here’s what you do.

First, put your phone down. Checking the Twitters, or your Insta-Face GramBook, or your text messages or what have you probably doesn’t take a lot of your time, considering that your thumbs can move at skittering-cockroach speeds over the screen; but it does take your attention, and that slows you down. Brushing your teeth while looking at a screen is slower than brushing your teeth while looking at your teeth. Sure, brushing your teeth isn’t nearly as interesting as social media, but the goal here is a few more minutes of sleep: so stare into that bathroom mirror, pretend you’re a rabid wolf foaming at the mouth (Peppermint-flavored rabies is the best kind of rabies!), and get it done quickly. Same with depilation, if that is part of your morning routine: every minute you shave off of your shaving is a minute more unconscious. And that’s always the goal.

Do as many tasks as possible before you go to bed in the evening. Set out your clothes for the next day; floss at night instead of in the morning (If you floss both times, you’re either obsessive, or you snack too much in your sleep. Seriously, who has food in their teeth before breakfast? Do it at night like a regular person.). If you can shower at night without your hair doing alien levitation tricks the next day, go for it. Get your backpack/binder/whatever ready the night before, so you can just grab it and go.

Don’t skip breakfast, though. That’s important. Speaking of which…

 

Step Two: Breakfast

First, put your phone down. If you are one of those incredibly fortunate people with a loved one who actually makes you breakfast, show your gratitude by speaking to them. Try to be pleasant, though don’t demand a miracle from yourself; if this person is actually willing to get up in the morning and cook for someone else, they are almost certainly willing to carry the conversation, and would be happy with the chance to share their overly-chipper-insanity-babbles with you. Ask them what their plans are for the day, and then just try to nod without actually falling asleep on top of your waffles on the way down.

If you, like me, are on your own for breakfast, then it’s toast or cereal that you are looking for. If you’re a toaster: try buttering both sides. For the more cereal person, I highly recommend Mom’s Cereal. It is delicious, and it seems local, organic, and environmentally conscious; actually, it’s a Post brand with a good marketing scheme. It just pretends to be more aware.

Like you.

If you are eating cereal, then the only thing you are permitted to look at is the cereal box. Yes, I know it isn’t interesting; but that’s how cereal must be eaten. It’s a tradition. Try comparing the nutrition facts on the box to anything else you have available with a recommended daily allowance. Like the bottle of bleach under the sink! Pop quiz: which one’s healthier, bleach or Lucky Charms?

(Hint: it’s bleach. It’s also delicious on the cereal!)

All right, all fueled up and ready to hit the road? Then let’s go!

 

Step Three: Driving

This is a bit tougher, because there are two areas for improvement in driving: driving safer, and avoiding boredom while driving. The two can seem mutually exclusive, because things you do to entertain yourself can detract from your safety. But there are ways to accomplish both goals, which is where my suggestions will aim; anything you can substitute for entertainment is up to you. Here’s my idea.

First, put your phone down. Distracted driving is rapidly becoming the largest cause of accidents. According to the Almighty Google, 431,000 people were injured in accidents involving distracted drivers in 2014, and by far the largest population of drivers using phones while they drive is teenagers. You. Putting your phone down is the easiest thing you can do to make yourself safer – and believe me, you do not want to start your day with a car crash. Or end it that way. Or have one in the middle.

In terms of entertainment, try singing along, at maximum volume, to whatever is on the radio. It’s best when you’re listening to opera or Spanish music. When you have no idea what the words are, you get to make them up. And the tune, too! Try it with your windows down – entertain the other drivers! See, it feels good to make other people happy!

Before you know it, you’ll arrive. (Even faster if other people are chasing you.) Time for…

 

Step Four: School

Once again, there are many aspects, some of which can pull you in opposite directions. If you do well in class, does that make you a nerd, and therefore persona non grata among the interesting sex? (If you are interested in women, then no: they tend not to be that shallow. If you are interested in men, then no: they are way too shallow to care about intelligence.) But in any case, I will try to help you out in as many aspects as I can. Here we go.

 

Classes: If you really can get more sleep, that will make the biggest difference. Along with eating breakfast. Nobody can learn while they are asleep. Other than getting more sleep, the next best thing you can do is this: first, put your phone down. Pay attention. I know it can be difficult, but it’s a positive feedback loop: the more you pay attention, the more sense it makes, and that makes it easier to pay attention and also more useful at the same time; at some point, you will be able to get distracted by the ideas in the class, and still pay attention at the same time.

Trust me. That is a very fun way to learn something. Give it a shot; your current method of ignoring the very idea of work, and then hoping that something, somehow, will make sense when the test is placed in front of you, is probably not working real well.

 

Using the bathroom: First, put your phone down. Carefully: you don’t want to drop it here. And talking to someone else while you are on the toilet makes you worse than Stalin. No exaggeration. But it is fun to have a fake one-way conversation while someone is in the next stall. Ask the air how their hemorrhoids are doing. Or if they plan to torture that last one they caught, or just kill it and dump the body. Or try talking to the person in the next stall, demanding a response, and then when they respond, say disgustedly, “I wasn’t talking to you!”

Please note: if you are using the men’s room, don’t talk to people while you’re using urinals. Don’t do it. Ever. Worse than Stalin. Really.

 

Dealing with teachers and assorted “authority” figures: First, put your phone down. The people who think they are in charge of the school are old-fashioned; to them, eye contact is respectful, and looking down and away – say, at a phone screen subtly palmed in one hand (Or both hands, if you have an iPhone 6) –  is disrespectful. I know, I know, it makes no sense – you don’t respect them whether you look at them or not – but you will find that things are much easier when you give people what they want, particularly with “authorities,” when it doesn’t actually cost you anything to give it to them. It bothers my pride, too, to just give people something they didn’t earn (Like passing grades or an answer to their ridiculous questions); but then, in exchange, they don’t give me something I didn’t earn: a Walmart-sized ration of crap. So look them in the eye when they are talking to you. Unless they are angry: then look down at the ground. At the ground, mind you – not at a phone. Teachers hate it when you look at phones while they are talking to you. I think it’s because they don’t actually use their phones. They never have friends. And even if they do, nobody texts a teacher: they correct your grammar. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

A secondary note: teachers never want to see your phone. Never. They don’t want to look at that video, they don’t want to read that webcomic, they don’t want to scroll through those memes or screencapped text conversations. If they look when you bring it to them, they are only being polite, and praying that you will go away soon. If you think you have something so funny or interesting that a teacher has to see it, send them an email. If it’s not worth you putting out that much effort, then it isn’t worth them looking at your cracked screen, trying to make out the tiny letters.

 

Social Life: First, put your phone down. Seriously. Counterintuitive, I know, but listen: people who want to hang out with you will want to hang out with you. Not your phone. There is no meme you can show them that they haven’t already seen. And if you make memes, nobody will want to hang out with you. Ever. Nobody. I mean it. Stop making memes. And when you meet someone that doesn’t immediately make you want to puke with boredom or nap with rage, then try talking to them. Of course you can talk about your phones, but you’re either going to make them feel bad when your phone is better than theirs, or feel bad when their phone is better than yours. Better to just forget about the phones and, I don’t know, talk about music. Or movies, maybe. Or which teachers suck least. Or how individual existence is only an illusion and we’re all connected aspects of one divine godhead. Once you get to know a person, you could sit together for hours staring at your phones together; but it’s better if you don’t. If you want to watch something, get a bigger screen; otherwise you’re breathing their damp, half-used exhaled air, and they’re stealing bites of your Twinkies and sometimes catching your fingers instead, and it’s weird. If you don’t have access to a bigger screen, try going out and doing something together. Take a walk. Go to a dog park or the shelter and pet puppies for free. Go to the mall and race the old people – it’s up to you if it’s more fun when they know you’re racing, or if it’s more fun when they don’t; I recommend both. You always get better stories when you make them than when you see them online.

 

Homework: First, put your phone down. You are fooling nobody when you cheat. Seriously. Fooling nobody, and gaining nothing but disdain and a sense of your own hopelessness. Feel free to not do the homework, of course – who really cares? I mean, teachers, but who cares that matters? Nobody, that’s who. Your parents may think they care, but there’s an easy way out: pretend you’re gay, if you’re not; or pretend you’re not, if you are and your parents know it. Then when they’ve forgotten entirely about that missing math assignment, just tell them it was a phase. It never fails. More advanced options include convincing them that you have fallen in love with, say, a toaster. Everybody knows about teenaged hormones: you can sell it, if you work hard enough at it. Just like pregnant women can convince people that they want to eat literally anything, and usually get the person to provide it. I almost wish I could be a pregnant woman: I’d tell everyone that I was suffering an unbearable craving for human flesh; then I’d stare at them silently, hungrily, and wait to see who was really my friend.

 

All right, that’s the end of your school day. For the drive home, treat it the same way as the drive to school: sing your way home. Pretend your car is powered by music. See if you can get it to fly on the wings of song. As for dinner, treat it like breakfast: if you are provided dinner, show your gratitude by talking to the person about their day, but this time, try to add something about yours. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it isn’t on your phone. If you make your own dinner, read the cereal box. Oh: let me add one thing here that could be scattered throughout your day.


Step In-Between: Waiting in line/in traffic/for your turn

Go ahead and get your phone out. This is what phones are actually good for, other than talking to Grandma. Unless you’re driving: if you’re driving, now’s your chance to really wow your audience in the nearby cars, because they’re waiting with you. Here’s a challenge: get them to listen to you when their windows are rolled up. Try adding pantomime to your singing.

 

Once you finally get through the day, it’s time for . . .

 

Step Five: Evening entertainment

I don’t want to tell you what to do with your free time. I mean, how invasive  and controlling and arrogant, to tell somebody how to live their life. You do you.

 

Step Six: Bedtime

At last, time to get some sleep! After you shower, floss, shave, pack your bags and set your clothes out for tomorrow, that is. Your pillow has been waiting for you all day! Oh, how you’ve missed it! You’ve got your narwhal pajamas on, your six fans directed at you, three of them blowing over heater vents and three over buckets of ice; the alarm is set, the clock is turned away so you don’t obsess over how much time you have until you have to get up; you’re all set. And how do you make your sleep deeper, more restful, more rejuvenating for the next day?

First: put your phone down.

On the Second Day of Christmas, Just Dusty Blogged for Me:

Top Ten Ways to Enjoy the Holidays

 

Before I begin the actual countdown, here are a few rules about my Top Ten lists. First, they are not in order. #10 is not the least, and #1 is not the most. #1 is not first, and #10 is not last. Second, they will not always be ten items long: I always try for ten, because it feels nice to hit the mark; but I am also obstinate and mischievous, far more than I am traditional and organized, so nine is certainly possible and eleven is likely.

Third, and most important: people determined to take these lists to heart do not have to accept the whole thing. The reason for itemized lists is that the items are not all required to accomplish the goal. If every item were required, this wouldn’t be a list, it would be a full essay, everything linked together and with an end result that is greater (hopefully) than the sum of its parts. But a list is only its parts.

So if you like what I say here, take one thing away with you. Or two, or three. Not all ten.

Especially not if there are only nine.

#1: Jolabokaflod.

This is also #8.

Here’s a lovely article on a lovely idea.

This year, Toni and I tried to do this Jolabokaflod thing (The above article has a link to the pronunciation, but it is pronounced pretty much like it looks. All of the o’s are long, so the word rhymes with the phrase, “Joel, a bloke, a toad.”), the Icelandic tradition where they give gifts of books on Christmas Eve. We went out and bought them on Christmas Eve, which was actually pretty fun; Barnes and Noble wasn’t absurdly crowded, and I enjoyed seeing that many people in a bookstore buying books. I liked buying a book for her, and I loved seeing the book she bought for me. I should have bought her a better book: I bought the one that was a gimme, a Stephen King novel – we both love Stephen King – but she had already bought me the same book for Christmas. She actually took her time and looked around for a book I would like but had never heard of; she found a collection of essays called How to Ruin Everything. I’m going to go back and exchange the one I got for something else. And in future – because this thing will happen again; it was too good not to keep doing – I will buy these books the way the Icelanders (Icelandish? Icelandiks? Icees?) do: I will look around in the months leading up to Christmas and find something she’ll like. And I’m going to enjoy giving her that one, too. I may try to wrap it.

Speaking of wrapping:

#2: Wrap presents however you want.

I wrap presents like the proverbial mutant T-Rex. I usually struggle with it, and try to make my presents as, well, presentable as possible; my father is a perfect wrapper, and Toni, of course, is a deft and capable wrapper, and so I feel the need to live up to their standards. I can’t. It usually frustrates the crap out of me when I realize that I cut the paper at a bad angle, or just a little too small, or that my corners aren’t crisp. And why is it that every time I fold up the ends, I get a bubble along the center seam? Why can’t the paper just lay flat?

So this year, I said screw it, and I embraced my crappy wrapping.

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It was both relaxing and fun. I mean, the point is to hide the present until the person is ready to enjoy each one, right? I understand the beauty of a finely-wrapped and beribboned present; but when that isn’t an option, why worry about it? Focus on what matters: the actual present. Oh no – I mean the thought. It’s the thought that counts.

Speaking of thoughts:

#3: Do something nice

Do something nice for someone you love. Then do something nice for someone you do not know. They can be things you do all the time. The person you love and do something nice for can be yourself. They can be holiday-themed, like putting money into the Salvation Army bell-ringers’ cans, or not, like donating blood to the Red Cross, which I will be doing this week or next.

Don’t overthink it. If you feel like the nice thing you’ve done isn’t quite nice enough, then do two things. Don’t do something so nice you regret the sacrifice you have to make. But do something nice.

#4: Listen to whatever the hell you want.

The Christmas music station here in Tucson really sucks. It’s terrible: they play two songs and then a pile of commercials; in the evening, when I’m in the mood for music, they have the most obnoxious sap-tastic hostess, who is constantly pulling that “Let’s hear everyone’s warmest wishes for the season,” and then taking calls from people who are grateful they got to have Christmas with their Aunt Buffina before she passed from the rheumatic cancer of the diverticulitis but at least they got to pray together one last time, and I just want to hear Blue Christmas, dammit.

But you know what I found this year? Hamilton. That is a badass musical. And the soundtrack is on Amazon Prime. (Want to know an excellent gift? A year of Amazon Prime. Don’t give me any shit about feeding the corporate monster: I buy local books, too. And Amazon Prime comes with free streaming, free shipping, a free E-book every month, and a streaming music player that lets you listen to albums without buying them. It is an outstanding service.) So this year, it’s been a very Hamilton Christmas for me. And I’ve been singing along, and enjoying it. I like that it has an uplifting element, and also a melancholy element, and that it is oustandingly, outlandishly cheesy.

And yes, I’m aware that I both celebrate the cheese in a musical about the Founding Fathers, and deride the cheese in the evening heart-warming radio call-in show. Everyone has their preferred cheese. Mine comes with speed-rapping about the Marquis de Lafayette.

Along with that: if you are a fan of Christmas movies, then go right ahead and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Story. But if you are not, watch something else that you love but haven’t seen for a while. This year Toni and I will be watching both the Lord of the Rings extended editions and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Because nothing says Christmas like pirates and Nazgul.

Hold on: imagine a Christmas-themed installment in either of those franchises. Hoo boy, there’s an image. Who plays Santa, Gimli, or Gandalf? Or maybe Elrond – Santa is called a jolly old Elf.

Speaking of weird Christmas mixtures:

#5: Eggnog Latte

The holidays should be a time for doing what makes us happy. The things I like about Christmas are enjoyable mainly because they aren’t things I do all the time. Like eggnog. I love eggnog. I would crawl a mile, over gravel and rusty nails, for a glass of good eggnog. But after a few quarts – okay, gallons – of eggnog, I get tired of it. Luckily: it goes away. And then when it comes back, I’m excited for it. And the best eggnog moment in the holiday season is when Starbucks brings back their Eggnog Latte. I can’t tell you how gorgeous it is to have a latte made with eggnog. If you are a fan of eggnog and of coffee, go get one, right now.

If you are not a fan of eggnog, that’s fine; turn this one into whatever treat you do love around the holidays. Sugar cookies, candy canes, fudge, roast turkey with all the trimmings, whatever. Eat it. Enjoy it. If you want to combine this with #3, do what my perfect wife did: bring someone an eggnog latte (or a roast turkey) while they are at work. A visit from a friend bearing goodies? Who wouldn’t love that?

#6: Whatever you do, no New Year’s Resolutions.

This may be a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also the truth. New Year’s Day is an invented holiday. It is not meaningful. (Well, this year it may be a little meaningful, because it will finally be the death of 2016. Hasta la vista, baby. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.) There is no particular reason to think of the first day of January as the beginning of the year: it has utterly no significance in the solar calendar, it is not the anniversary of a momentous occasion in history; it is the day we arbitrarily decided was first. It’s like someone having eight kids and deciding the third from the last is Kid #1. It makes no sense. And because it makes no sense, any feeling of renewal or a fresh start is entirely fabricated. Now, that isn’t a bad thing: I think it is good to decide that this day, this hour, is where it begins, whatever it is; but the only power in that is the act of deciding. And part of that is deciding that it is exactly, precisely, now. So I think when we base that decision on someone else’s arbitrary choice of starting point, it has only as much power as we think other people have over us – which, when it comes to breaking old habits or starting new ones, is not very freaking much. I did manage to quit smoking, almost exactly nine years ago – and I started on December 28th. Because I knew I was going to quit; why wait three more days and do it when the calendar says I should?

So: resolutions are fine and good. I have several myself, including blogging more regularly and getting back to the gym. But I’ll start them whenever I decide to. I recommend the same for everyone else.

#7: Decorate. But do it your way.

We all want to feather our nests, want to make the place where we spend the most time as comfortable and attractive as possible. So do it. The holidays offer a unique opportunity, because I think Christmas lights are beautiful. One of my favorite things is trying out new ways to hang the lights. Try new designs, new colors, hang them in different patterns or in different places, inside and outside. Along with that, the tree indoors is a splendid thing. Try for a living tree, maybe; the smell of pine is available through a wreath or cut branches, and living trees are often cheaper and reusable. While you’re at it, buy some knick-knacks that make you laugh; we have a Chris-Moose that always makes me smile. And a pair of holiday toads that hang on a doorknob that makes me laugh.

Now: if you have too many knick-knacks already, maybe the way you should decorate is by getting rid of them. At least some of them. Empty out one box, or one room – and I mean give them away or throw them out – and then thin the others to fill it back up again. But first, try sitting in a room with no knick-knacks at all; see how it feels. Whatever you do, if you have or want knick-knacks, don’t tell other people about it. If you tell people that you enjoy ceramic narwhals, you will never get anything else for birthdays or Christmas, and your house will look like a narwhal knick-knack museum within three years. Come look at my mother-in-law’s frog collection and you’ll see what I mean.

Along the same lines: a lovely way to decorate is to clean. Or to organize. Or both. Don’t try to do the whole house; pick one task that matters but is rarely or never done, and do it. Make it an accomplishment.

#8: Wear good socks.

New socks. Comfortable socks: ones that are the right size, that aren’t too stretched out to hold to your ankles and calves, but aren’t so tight they leave red lines on your skin. If you don’t have good socks: buy some. Don’t hold onto old socks. Don’t skimp on cheap socks. Nothing feels better than good socks. You want both thin and thick varieties to go with the weather, and if you can find ones that you think are funny or pretty, all the better. But wear them. And throw out the old ones.

I don’t know if these are comfy, but they’re awesome.

#9: Change razor blades

Similar to the socks, but this one is even more important. Don’t cut yourself on Christmas. Use new blades. If they feel too expensive, then get a safety-razor; the blades are cheap and the handle isn’t disposable, so you’re adding little to the landfills – and no plastic. But if you like a nine-bladed cartridge, great, use that. Use a fresh one. Have a good shave.

Mine’s about a 1950.

#10: Go out and take a walk.

One of the loveliest things about the holidays is that, on the actual day itself, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, most people stay inside, stay home, don’t work. That means the world is quiet. Go out and take a walk in it. Go someplace that is normally busy and crowded and chaotic, and enjoy the peace and quiet. Move your feet, breathe the air, listen to the silence. Take someone with you if they can be quiet while they walk. Don’t listen to music: listen to the world. It’s a nice place.

I got sunshine, here in Tucson; but even on a cloudy day, a quiet walk is lovely.

#11: Ask yourself why you don’t do these things every day.

On The First Day of Christmas, Dusty Blogged For Me . . .

Merry Christmas!

(I really like this one, too: )

No, really: Merry Christmas. And Happy Hanukkah. And Heri za Kwanzaa. And a joyous Milad un Nabi. And a blessed Solstice. Happy Holidays to everyone, for whatever reason you have to celebrate. (A special happy birthday to people born around the holiday season, since you normally get left in the cold. You rule the Yule.)

I’m saying this because I had trouble finding a reason to celebrate this year. No, that’s not true: I have a dozen reasons to celebrate; but none of them are related to Christmas. (My reasons: my wife, my dog, my bird, my tortoise; my family and friends; my house, my books, my favorite things; my health and the continued existence of this reality and this planet and this country; art and words and truth and beauty. Oh – and coffee. Always coffee.) So I had trouble getting into the holiday spirit this year. I didn’t want to sing along with the Christmas carols; I didn’t help decorate the tree; I didn’t wrap presents until Christmas Eve. I wore my holiday stuff and I put up lights on the outside of the house, but it didn’t really excite me. I wasn’t feeling it.

A little bit of that is that Christmas is not a particularly beloved holiday for my wife Toni, and so walking around belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” is not the joyeaux occasion around here that it might be in other homes. But even if she was Santa’s favorite elf (Back off, Kringle – she’s mine), I wouldn’t have felt much like doing that.

Because it’s 2016. And John Glenn just died. And Trump will be president in less than a month. And civilians are being killed in Aleppo.

And for me personally, it’s been hard because I had school up until the 22nd, and was still fiercely grading and doing schoolwork on the 23rd, when grades were due. It’s hard to feel Christmas-y when you’re reading bad essays. It’s not much easier when you’re reading good essays, when you have to grade those essays.

Here’s my Christmas wish: I wish that I was permitted to write, on the papers of students who clearly didn’t read Fahrenheit 451 with the class but still write on the test that Bradbury’s dystopia won’t come to pass because people in our society still read, “You stink of lies.” Or maybe, “It’ll be your fault when it happens.”

See? Feelings like that have no place in Christmas.

But you know what I realized? They kinda do.

I’m not a religious man. I don’t actually care about the birth of Christ. Oh, I have no problem with it: Jesus was a good dude, as I understand it; he’s in a couple of my favorite books (Lamb and Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series – though his big one is not one of my favorites. Never read that. I hate it when they number paragraphs. Feels like a reading comprehension test.), and I like what I know about what he had to say. But it doesn’t put rum in my eggnog, if you follow me. Nor does the birth of the Prophet Mohammed matter to me, nor the miracle of the lamp, nor the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Though that last one is pretty cool. And I do like the idea behind Kwanzaa, namely community and cultural celebrations. But it’s pretty generic for me, not being African-American: my culture has never been threatened, other than by our own cynicism and sarcasm. And our exceptionalism and arrogance. And by – but we’re not talking about America here, we’re talking about the holidays. The holidays – including New Year’s, by the by, which annoys me much more than it pleases me – are not terribly meaningful occasions for me.

So the only thing the holidays really mean to me is: there is stuff in there that I like. More than anything, I like my vacation. So very, very much. I actually finished a book yesterday, for the first time in more than a month. Me. I haven’t been reading books. What does that say about my job? My time management? My choices in life?

No: we’re not talking about that crap, either. We’re talking about things I like about the holidays. I like singing along with the songs. I like knowing all the words. I like decorating my house, especially with lights. My neighborhood is very dark – no streetlights – and the Christmas lights really shine. I actually really like having a tree inside. I love giving presents, and I like sending greeting cards, though I’d rather be more selective and intentional with it (And I’m annoyed that all of my relatives sent my Christmas cards to the wrong address.), because sending a card with a canned comment about the holidays doesn’t make me happy; I’d rather send cards that I know people will like, with thoughts inside about that person, just because that person will like the card and I might have been thinking about them; whether it’s actually a holiday card or not is pretty irrelevant. I would like it more if it wasn’t, actually; if the person and the card were the only occasion necessary for the sending. I like wearing goofy holiday-themed clothes, though I kind of always wear goofy themed clothes, because I don’t really own any t-shirts that aren’t printed with either a pop culture reference, a bad pun, or something about books and reading and imagination.

Do you see what I see?

Here it is.

It doesn’t matter that it’s Christmas. I mean, Merry Christmas, especially if that is a day of great meaning and symbolism for you; but you know what? Happy December 26th, too. And March 9th: my very best wishes for that day. Oh – and the eleventh of June. That’s a good date. The 21st, too; of every month. It doesn’t matter that today is Christmas because it doesn’t matter what day it is. What matters is that this is a time of year when we stop our usual grind and do things that make us happy. People who love seeing their families make time to do it around now. We give presents, and cards, and wish people well. We actually use the mail, and get excited about things arriving in the box. We decorate, especially with bright colors and lights. We take vacations: we take time off from work and do things that we like to do, like bake, and sing, and watch favorite movies.

My God, we need those things more in our lives. Especially because it’s still 2016, and Carrie Fisher had a heart attack, and there’s a typhoon hitting the Philippines. And Trump’s going to be president in less than a month.

There’s an important thing that I have to say. Are you listening? Okay, here it is: I wish people happiness because happiness is good. But sadness is good, too. (I know this because I paid attention when I read Fahrenheit 451. You bunch of tools. My students are the tools, not people who are reading this. If you’re reading this, then you rock. You really are the reason we will hopefully avoid Bradbury’s dystopia, where the books are banned and the people don’t care.) Sadness is important. And not just because you need to feel sadness in order to understand happiness; I suppose that’s true, but I can’t say that I have any experience with being happy without being sad, so who knows? No: sadness is important because sadness is a genuine human emotion. When you are feeling sad, then that’s you, and that’s you feeling. Those are important. You have to be yourself. You have to feel. You have to experience all of your feelings, even the dark ones.

Christmas is a time of sadness. First just because it’s winter, and it’s cold, and it’s dark. Sometimes because we can’t do the things we want to do, because of job or money or circumstance. Sometimes because it reminds us of people who are gone. That last is a genuine feeling, and an important one. Don’t belittle grief just because everyone around you is wearing a light-up tie. It may be difficult to live with sorrow in the face of so much ostentatious cheer, but it’s better to do it than try to ignore what you feel or block it out. And your sorrow is not wrong, nor is it less important than someone else’s joy.

Here’s another reason why Christmas makes people sad: because of Christmas traditions. Because traditions become obligations, and then when we don’t keep them, we feel like we have failed. That’s why people risk their lives to drive through blizzards to be in a specific place on a specific day; because that’s their tradition. People put themselves deep into debt, and then spend the rest of the year fretting about it; because that’s their tradition. People whose traditions include things that are gone, and people that are gone, get to both grieve and feel like failures.

Bullshit. Traditions should only be maintained if it pleases you to do so. If it doesn’t, make up new traditions. Or screw tradition: do whatever the hell you want. That’s what the holiday spirit should be about: do whatever the hell you want, just because it makes you genuinely happy. Start with being nice to people. Every year, we all see the news stories about someone getting robbed, or mugged, or assaulted, and we all say, “You shouldn’t do that to someone during Christmas.” And then we all think, and maybe say, “Well, really, you shouldn’t do that to someone any time.” That’s right. The holiday season should be a time when we think about, and act with, kindness and generosity, more than any particular religious observance; and every day should be the same.

Because it doesn’t matter that it’s Christmas. A day for giving and for cherishing those that you love can be – should be – any day. Every day. And if today is a day when you feel sad, do that. Feel it. Go through it. And then make some cookies, and read a book, or call someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Feel better for having felt bad.

Have a happy today, everyone. I wish you all the very best.

And the same again, tomorrow.