Spoiler Warning: Bioshock Infinite cannot be properly analyzed without revealing the details of its plot. If you plan to play it, or haven’t finished it, consider whether you wish to read further.
This may seem an odd way to start an analysis of a video game. But bear with me.
I was not always a Christian. There was a period of my life during which I searched for truth, trying to discern medicine from snake oil. One of the most compelling observations which led to the development of my Christian faith was the unique economy of sin presented in the Bible.
While many people believe that human beings are inherently good, an honest assessment of one’s own thoughts, along with cursory observation of even the youngest child, reveals that human beings are actually quite wicked. Not only are we bad, we like ourselves that way. Indeed, the notion that we are inherently good lowers the moral bar to the status quo, as if this life lived this way with all its horrors and violations were some kind of ideal.
Christianity stands unique among worldviews in not only acknowledging our congenital moral defect, but also in explaining how we contracted it while offering a cure. Other faiths tend to regard sin as some form of moral debit which can be offset by good deeds. Becoming a Christian requires acknowledging that the debt accrued through sin can never be paid by the sinner. Instead, the believer trusts in the atoning death of Christ, pointing to Him as the settler of accounts. Such faith proves difficult, both because we tend to deny our own wickedness and because we prefer to think we can overcome deficiencies on our own.
Surprisingly, this economy of sin proves quite relevant to an analysis of Irrational Games’ hot new shooter set in the skies above 1912 America, Bioshock Infinite. Redemption runs as a prominent theme throughout the experience, presented in various forms which tend to prove false. Protagonist Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton man and player avatar, seeks the seemingly simple redemption of a financial debt to a dangerous creditor. Antagonist Zachary Comstock, head prophet of a xenophobic cult, offers his followers redemption from “the Sodom below” within the floating city of Columbia. Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the leftist Vox Populi, offers her followers redemption from the tyranny of Comstock through militant revolution. Player companion and surprisingly able damsel Elizabeth begins as an innocent who comes to realize her own peculiar need for a second chance.
Ayn Rand gets a lot of press these days, but her philosophy, Objectivism, is still wildly, ridiculously misunderstood. Typically this is because many people who COMMENT on it don’t actually think they need to READ it. But it also is because there are vile people in the world who would like others to think Objectivism is something that it isn’t, in order to prevent it from spreading in the culture. These vile people would prefer a world of ignorance, slavery, and large-soda bans.
Perhaps even more misunderstood, then, are the strange and wonderful creatures who call themselves Objectivists. (Yes, I just called myself a strange and wonderful creature.) Just because we are the intellectual superheroes of the world (too much?) doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to be better understood, and even appreciated. Even Superman needed to be appreciated. And if Superman were real, it would prove my point.
Objectivists are, to put it simply, people who have studied Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism, to such a degree that they understand its essentials, have decided the philosophy is true, have attempted to live by it, AND have erected an alter in Rand’s name with 7 candles representing each of the 7 virtues. (That last one is actually voluntary.)
Objectivism is a closed and complete system of thought, so agreement is actually possible. It’s the same as a person saying, I’ve read and agree with the philosophy of Aristotle, except that it’s Ayn Rand we agree with. What it means to be an Objectivist is that you philosophically understand and accept that reason is your only means of knowledge, and you resolve to honestly use reason and logic to the best of your ability in and for your life. That’s pretty much it. Done. Normal, yet exceptional. But that is not what most people think about us. Here are the top 5 most common misconceptions about Objectivists.
The cult of Ayn Rand has never been stronger on the American Right. Rand’s influence on groups such as the Tea Party and politicians like Rand Paul — who is, after all, named after her — is intense, and clearly growing in popularity. Indeed, the Tea Party began with a pundit who called himself “basically an Ayn Rander.” For many on the Right, Rand has become something approaching a messiah, or at least a patron saint. American conservatives, looking for a way up from the defeats of the Obama era, appear ready to embrace this trend. This is, needless to say, an extremely bad idea.
First, it is politically suicidal. The U.S. is mired in an economic crisis that has been brewing for some time, and shows few signs of disappearing. And this crisis was caused, to a great extent, by Randian economics. Eschewing traditional fiscal conservatism, the American Right embraced for the better part of three decades a messianic form of capitalism that demonized the state and society, while fostering an idolatry of the individual entrepreneur, the corporate CEO, and the unabashed pursuit of money as the highest moral good.
That this has had horrendous consequences cannot be denied. If money is the highest moral good, then making money — by whatever means — overrides all other concerns, even legality, prudence, and common sense. The result has been massive economic inequality, recklessness on the part of the private sector that brought it close to self-destruction, the gutting of public assets, and the negation of even the idea of a collective good.
This is much in contrast to traditional conservatism, which acknowledged the self-evident fact that society is a collective endeavor, and the interests of the individual must be balanced against those of the collective. It also acknowledged — indeed, insisted — that a society can reach a consensus on what constitutes the good, and pursue it on a collective level to the benefit of all. Indeed, Edmund Burke based his entire critique of the French Revolution on the idea that the good can only be achieved by particular communities with specific values, and not through universalist individualism. Rand, in contrast, regarded society as fundamentally evil and the mortal enemy of the individual; a point of view that can, in fact must, lead to a state of anarchy and social collapse that benefits no one and destroys precisely what traditional conservatism seeks to preserve.
Bioshock Infinite releases next Tuesday, March 26. A highly anticipated prequel to one of the most widely acclaimed video games in history, the title stands poised to awe not only with inspiring visuals and thrilling gameplay, but with a controversial critique of American Exceptionalism.
Film critic Roger Ebert earned the ire of gamers a few years ago when he ruled declaratively that video games can never be art. Emerging from the resulting swarm of agitated youth, Ebert later relented slightly, if only to admit that he really ought to experience video games before banishing them from the realm of artistic consideration.
An intriguing debate regarding what makes a thing art is woven through both of Ebert’s pieces linked above. However, the argument may be moot. It seems fair to say that when a craft begins to express complex ideas regarding the human condition, when it begins to stimulate thought and debate on matters of genuine import in the real world, when it can affect how you think about issues and what you believe about your world, it achieves the status of art.
By that standard, the video game industry has produced a bounty of artistic titles amidst a sea of thoughtless cookie-cutter fare. Of course, this makes video games no different than any creative medium. There exist far more vulgar scratches on bathroom stalls than masterpieces hung in museums, far more trashy romance novels than genuine epics, and certainly more popcorn flicks and action movies than truly inspirational films.
Like any medium, games can evoke powerful emotions and make compelling philosophical statements. The element of interactivity can heighten such moments beyond the experience of a novel, painting, or film. No longer a mere observer, what happens in a game happens to you. The world of the game and the characters which inhabit it change, live, and die according to the choices you make.
The inherent power of the medium proves all the more reason to treat it seriously as an influential artistic form. Therefore, as Bioshock Infinite makes its case against the notion of American Exceptionalism, we do well to pay attention and respond.
Previous articles in this series:
- 5 Common Accusations Leveled at Christianity
- A Reason for Faith: Christianity on Trial
- A Reason for Faith: 6 Fatal Misconceptions
When Abraham Lincoln needed to rally the nation toward unity, he referenced Matthew 12:25:
But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand…”
That principle proves timeless. Divide and conquer remains an effective tactic. Perhaps that informs the many writers on the Left who have strived to drive a wedge between followers of Jesus Christ and adherents to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Consider Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero, who once wrote that “marrying Ayn Rand to Jesus Christ is like trying to interest Lady Gaga in Donny Osmond.” He cautioned Republican readers against conflating them:
Rand’s trinity is “I me mine.” Christianity’s is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So take your pick. Or say no to both. It’s a free country. Just don’t tell me you are both a card-carrying Objectivist and a Bible-believing Christian. Even Rand knew that just wasn’t possible.
Truthfully, one cannot be both a Christian and an Objectivist. As covered throughout this series, Objectivist epistemology does not allow for any acknowledgement of the supernatural. However, one can be a Christian and recognize many of the objective truths which Ayn Rand articulated. After all, Christians do not deny objective reality. We merely recognize an eternal context. Worldviews need not align to overlap.
Prothero employs the typical objection to any alliance between Christians and objectivists:
Real conservatism is also about sacrifice, as is authentic Christianity. President Kennedy was liberal in many ways, but, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” was classic conservatism. Rand, however, will brook no such sacrifice. Serve yourself, she tells us, and save yourself as well. There is no higher good than individual self-satisfaction.
Here, both Christianity and Objectivism are misrepresented. True, Rand deplored Kennedy’s classic inaugural exhortation, perceiving it to subordinate the individual to the collective (although it could be argued Kennedy intended the opposite). However, she never presented “individual self-satisfaction” as the standard of value. One can be fully satisfied in any given moment without serving their rational long-term self-interest.
Previous articles in this series:
The title of the talk, “Capitalism: The Only Moral Social System,” was irresistible to a newborn activist bred from the Tea Party. As a lifelong conservative, I had always felt as though capitalism was morally superior to any alternative, but had not encountered a claim as bold as this. The speaker was Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard. His thesis was not that capitalism was the best social system, or the most efficient, or the most tolerable among acceptable choices. His claim was that capitalism is the one true good, the only way to go, and that any other system proves profoundly bad.
Biddle’s argument was compelling, built upon observation of reality and application of reason. He took us through the mind’s eye to a far-flung island where we were marooned alone without a single piece of technology. He asked us how such a castaway would survive. What would have to be done? Through what means would it be done? What could prevent it?
In order to survive and thrive, human beings must act rationally to obtain and keep values. A castaway requires food, shelter, sanitation, recreation, and a means to escape or attract rescue. To obtain these things, the castaway cannot rely upon instinct like an animal. Rather, he must apply his mind to the task at hand. He must discern what can be safely eaten, how to fashion tools, how to construct shelter, how to trap and kill animals, how to effectively use the raw materials around him to affect his survival. Ultimately, the only thing which could prevent the castaway from doing these things, aside from his willingness and ability, is brute force from another human being.
Therein lies the objectivist ethic. What human beings need in order to survive and thrive is not provision, but the liberty to act upon their own judgment. Put another way, liberty is life. To deprive a man of his liberty is to deprive him of his life, to drain or contain him. Therefore, the recognition and protection of individual rights are essential.
Hearing this for the first time, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail of conservative apology. While natural law evoked a Creator which secular leftists could simply deny, this objectivist argument stood firmly upon reason and the uncontestable facts of reality. How is it that this was not being echoed across conservative media, I asked myself. Then I got my answer.
But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.
It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.
It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.
It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.
Related at PJ Lifestyle on Objectivism:
Last Week’s article: 5 Common Accusations Leveled at Christianity
Christianity is profoundly bad. So argued philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Bernstein in a recent debate sponsored by The Objective Standard and the University of Texas Objectivism Society. Countering Bernstein was Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza. They discussed whether Christianity is “good or bad for mankind.”
They spent a majority of their time debating more fundamental philosophical questions. What is the nature of reality? Does God exist? What is the proper source of morality? While many attendees commenting during the livestream chat saw these questions as diversions from the advertised topic, they were actually the crux of the matter. In order to discern whether Christianity is good or bad for mankind, “good” must first be defined.
Bernstein primarily accused Christianity of being irrational. To be irrational is to be immoral according to Objectivism, a philosophy advocated by Bernstein and best articulated by Ayn Rand in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. As Rand saw it, a proper morality arises only from the application of reason. Rand saw any assertion of faith as a rejection of reason. By parsing through Bernstein’s points, we examine not only whether Christianity is a fool’s errand, but whether faith of any kind is profoundly bad.
We begin at the foundation by first asking what we know and how we know it. Those questions are answered in the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Objectivism holds that reason is the only means toward acquiring knowledge. In her essay Philosophy: Who Needs It? Rand argues:
Reason is the faculty which… identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.
Objectivist author William R. Thomas explains further:
The basis of our knowledge is the awareness we have through our physical senses. We see reality, hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it through touch. As babies, we discover the world through our senses. As our mental abilities develop, we become able to recall memories and we can form images in our minds.
Strict adherence to this means of acquiring knowledge precludes entertaining the supernatural. Like all religion, Christianity is a faith-based belief system which Objectivism rejects as nonsense.
How may Christians answer this view of knowledge? If the object of philosophy is to understand reality and access the whole truth of existence, then objectivist epistemology has an obvious limitation. Surely, applying logic to our perceptions is a solid method for discerning what is true. However, the amount of truth we can know through that process is capped by our perception.
Related at PJ Lifestyle:
Depending upon whom you ask, Christianity either withers under constant assault from a secular humanist conspiracy or flourishes as a virulent social tumor threatening intellectual and moral progress. This Friday, two leading intellectuals will take up the question of whether Christianity is “Good or Bad for Mankind.” Prolific writer, scholar, and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza will trade arguments with professor of philosophy Dr. Andrew Bernstein. The debate will take place on February 8th at the University of Texas – Austin’s Hogg Auditorium beginning at 7pm CST, sponsored by The Objective Standard and the UT Objectivism Society. It will also be broadcast live over an internet stream. [Updated: see part 1 of Walter's analysis of the debate here.]
This intellectual confrontation “is guaranteed to set a new standard on the subject” according to The Objective Standard. That promise will be fulfilled. The arguments offered will differ from previous high-profile debates regarding Christian morality. While atheists whom D’Souza has engaged before have come from a position of skepticism or secular moral relativism, Bernstein’s body of work previews a fresh approach.
Bernstein will channel Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism, which not only rejects the Christian worldview, but emphatically indicts Christianity as a profound moral evil. While that may sound familiar and evoke recollections of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or the like, Bernstein’s argument will differ in that it will not merely cite alleged evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity but drill down to the root of what makes a thing good and assert that Christianity is the opposite.
Readers who have followed my recent work at PJ Media may have noticed two things. First, that I frequently evoke the work of Ayn Rand in support of my moral and political views. Second, that I am a professing Christian eager to contend for the faith. These two aspects of my person no doubt meet with frustration, confusion, or condemnation from both Christian and Objectivist readers who perceive their respective worldviews as irreconcilable. I dare to contend that, while there are certainly profound differences in these worldviews, they are not as wholly irreconcilable as either contingent thinks.
Let’s preview some of the arguments sure to be made in Austin. Next week, we’ll respond to these points along with any others which arise and consider just how incompatible Christianity and Objectivism truly are. Here are 5 accusations sure to be leveled against Christianity by Andrew Bernstein in his debate with Dinesh D’Souza.
On Tuesday I turned 29. Apparently this is one of those “milestone” birthdays meant to suggest that now I’m really growing old and should start worrying or feeling worse about myself in some abstract way. Apparently when you’re 30 it means that the party decade is over and you should scrape the cheeto dust out of your navel, put some pants on, and finally grow up.
So be it. Growing old has never really bothered me. (Though I wish the hair wasn’t going so fast…) I’ve felt like a cranky old man trapped in a young person’s body since at least junior high. So how about this for an old-fashioned way to really put the last 362 days of the third decade of my life to use: actually writing out a plan for the year. Here’s what I’m going to try to do so that when the 30th birthday hits in 2014 I can look back and not feel too much embarrassment at another wasted year.
In December I declared my “7 New Year’s Resolutions I Invite Others to Steal” and then began the process of integrating these general self-improvement goals into both my daily routine and the weekly schedule of my PJ Lifestyle blogging. I left them somewhat vague so over the course of the month more concrete goals could materialize. And here they are, revised from my original list but generalized so perhaps others might still find them useful to consider as potential additions to their own Lifestyle self-programming.
1. Family Life on Monday: Rediscover and Celebrate Your Family’s Origins.
On Monday this week I blogged an open letter to my wife informing her that the time had come to change directions with our Netflix diet. The number of Dexter/Battlestar Galactica-level cable shows on DVD had dried up and new releases offered little hope of consistent entertainment satisfaction. We had to start mining older regions of film and TV history — but could we agree on a path forward?
Turns out we still can. April selected the first option:
1. Watch the entire Criterion Collection. Maybe in order?
You’re always complaining (rightfully) that the past few years I’ve spent too much time on politics and don’t show you weird, artsy movies anymore. Well here’s the mother lode and now we should start exploring it.
April suggested we call it “The Criterion Challenge.” We’re going to attempt to watch as many as we can this year — and yes, as close to in the order of their release as we can. We started last night with my copy of The Seven Samurai (spine #2) and watched the first hour. I’d forgotten how entertaining a film it was — and was delighted when April got into it too.
In charting this new entertainment course for us, we’re really going back to the origins of our relationship. I never realized what a role my oddball movie tastes had for April. When we began dating seriously for a second time in the fall of 2006 (a few months after I’d graduated and she was starting her sophomore undergraduate year), I would drive up to Muncie from Indianapolis on weekends with different art movie DVDs to share with her.
But in the years since our marriage I’ve neglected this original film guide role. My movie obsession fell by the wayside to make way for political warfare and new media trouble-making. Now’s a good time to correct course as I seek to re-balance my life between the legs of culture, religion, and politics. (Instead of the ideological focus that it’s largely been for the last three years…)
And we’re both on the same page in why we’re watching this series of classic films — to further develop our own understanding of the visual arts. What makes a beautiful, powerful image? How does film tell stories and evoke feelings? April and I are going to explore these questions together and I’ll try and blog a few thoughts on each film. Also, keeping with the return to film, for our year off from Disney Land I’m going to make a point to explore the ideas that brought it into existence.
Monday Bookshelf and Blogging Focus: Research the life, work, and ideas of Walt Disney to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I finally started Atlas Shrugged this morning. Many thanks to my Objectivist friends for inspiring me to read it. I’ll plan to share visual excerpts and blog on its themes Thursdays.
Highly Recommended: see Stephen W. Browne’s essays “Why I’m Not an Objectivist” Part 1 and 2 with which I tend to mostly agree. I already like most of Rand’s writing and ideas quite a bit. But to me she’s just one more intellectual crayon in the box. Never the less, I do look forward to learning how to color in the shade of Queen Ayn…
image courtesy shutterstock / Lawrence Wee
Related at PJ Lifestyle:
When I began my first semester of college in August of 2002 the path forward looked clear: English major, creative writing emphasis, learn how to write novels. This had been my plan since about third grade.
But it didn’t happen. Instead George W. Bush invaded Iraq and I added on a political science major. At a moral level, with questions of life and death hanging in the balance, to change the world by writing great literature seemed almost irresponsible. How could I waste my time dreaming up fantasies when I could be using my skills to try and affect the decisions our country made?
And so it’s remained for almost seven years, since I graduated in 2006. My political ideology might have shifted as I emerged out of the academic bubble and discovered the joy of learning how to create value in the free market, but my reading habits stayed the same, mirroring what P. David Hornik described in his thoughtful “Goodbye, Literature” essay.
I realize now that I’ve consumed an unbalanced reading diet — not unlike my unbalanced eating diet (now recently corrected). Perhaps novels have made up only 10% of my book intake. I’ve focused so much on getting caught up on political books and reviewing the new non-fiction ones that I’ve neglected the literary world.
No more. Yesterday I decided to declare my intent to blog on the humorous philosophical writings of the radical agnostic novelist Robert Anton Wilson, to analyze his ideas and separate the wheat from the chaff. And so it seems fitting that on the day following it I’ll do the same with his opposite, the very serious and very certain Ayn Rand. The Thursday Book Shelf recommendations and excerpts will come from her works. I welcome any suggestions on passages of note — email me at DaveSwindlePJM@Gmail.com. I’m hoping that this can ignite my passion for the novel. Someday I do hope to get back to it again…
More on Ayn Rand and Objectivism at PJ Lifestyle:
What do we mean when we say, “You cannot legislate morality”?
Surely, legislation should not be ambivalent to right and wrong. Law builds upon the concept of justice. Is not justice derived from morality?
Sometimes, people simply mean that government cannot force us to be good. In other contexts, the statement signals a distinction between what is objectively wrong, like killing someone, and what is subjectively wrong, like swearing in public.
Yet much of the time it can be hard to discern exactly what someone means when they say morality cannot be legislated. The term is used on both the Right and the Left, by social conservatives and social liberals, by people on opposite sides of the same issue. On the one hand, you might have a conservative who uses the term to argue against redistribution of wealth while standing opposed to gay marriage and abortion. On the other hand, you might find a leftist who uses the term to argue in favor of gay marriage and abortion while seeking to seize money which they did not earn.
What gives? Does the term prove completely subjective? Does any given person simply want their sense of morality enforced while the other guy’s sits ignored?
It shouldn’t surprise us to find confusion whenever morality is invoked. People’s sense of right and wrong certainly varies and will affect their public policies. Perhaps recognition of that fact fuels the notion that morality ought not be legislated. Perhaps we think, “In a free country, we have the right to decide right and wrong for ourselves.”
Of course, that sentiment fails upon its first application. A murderer might think he is right, as might a thief or a rapist. Hitler thought he was right. Perhaps then, morality by whim is not a pillar of true freedom.
Upon acknowledging that some kind of morality must inform legislation, a most uncomfortable question arises. Whose? Should the morality informing legislation be dictated by the church? Should it be a consensus of “experts”? Should it be put to a purely democratic vote? Who has the right, and by what authority, to tell another what they may or may not do?
Historically, governments have derived their authority and their sense of morality through entirely subjective and arbitrary means. The king is so ordained by God. Better men should govern lesser ones. The majority should get their way. These approaches are united in their disregard for individual rights.
A pastor visiting our church shared a story from when his children were young. The oldest was four years old, and the younger three, when their mother served them grapes on the vine. As they plucked the sweet fruit, the younger child asked of the older, “How does Mommy get the grapes on there?”
Summoning elder gravitas, the firstborn replied, “Mommy doesn’t put the grapes on there.
“The store does.”
Children have a wonderful way of modeling our deficiencies. While it is easy to laugh at the reasoning of a child, we ought to consider how silly our reasoning might prove if the whole truth were known. Indeed, if we cannot point to an idea or two which we have reconsidered in light of new evidence, it cannot be said we have grown.
One idea which I used to hold, which made perfect sense to me at the time and still makes perfect sense to most of my Christian brethren, is the notion that man cannot rationally demonstrate an absolute morality in a world without God. My reasoning echoed that of Jeff Jacoby in a 2010 piece for Townhall. He wrote:
For in a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees “Thou shalt not murder.’’ It certainly cannot be proved wrong by reason alone. One might reason instead — as Lenin and Stalin and Mao reasoned — that there is nothing wrong with murdering human beings by the millions if doing so advances the Marxist cause. Or one might reason from observing nature that the way of the world is for the strong to devour the weak — or that natural selection favors the survival of the fittest by any means necessary, including the killing of the less fit.
Reason is not enough. Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is a matter of opinion. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. What makes us think we’re right?
This perspective contrasts with that typically offered by atheists and agnostics, who assert that right and wrong can be discerned without reference to the supernatural. As a Christian, it is tempting to respond to such skeptics as PJ Lifestyle contributor John Hawkins did while affirming Jacoby.
What can your smartphone teach you about gratitude? A great deal.
Not many years ago, I despised the idea of a cell phone. I value my autonomy, which to my mind includes the ability to remain deliberately unavailable. The notion of carrying around a phone in my pocket sounded a lot like putting a leash around my neck.
The issue was forced one Christmas when my in-laws purchased phones for my wife and me, even paying the subsequent bill for a year. Later came the advent of smartphones. I stood unimpressed. Phones make calls. They don’t need to sing and dance. Nevertheless, a new device caught my wife’s eye during an opportunity to upgrade our cellular contract. The price seemed reasonable and I reluctantly traded up.
It was my exploration of that device which prompted a dramatic change in my attitude toward mobile technology. As I pilfered apps and discovered capabilities, I quickly realized that this tiny gadget was becoming the most used and essential tool in my navigation of life. It came to serve as my administrative assistant, my calendar, my GPS, my library, and my gateway to news, information, and entertainment. It grew into an extension of my civilized being. Like my wallet or keys, it stays with me at all times and remains jealously guarded.
No longer pulled reluctantly into the future, I recently became the puller, convincing my wife that it was time to switch providers and upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy S III. Our old phones barely qualified as “smart” and were woefully inadequate to fulfill our new demands.
Consider that transformation in attitude. How could I go from not knowing I had a need to eagerly fulfilling it? Behold the magic of the market!
The critic of consumer culture might suggest that I was right to perceive no need for something like a smartphone. After all, people got by fine without them for millennia, and much of the world still does. Then again, people got by without electricity and automobiles too. If you regard the function of the market as meeting only known demand and current needs, then it becomes easy to dismiss an innovation like the smartphone as somehow decadent.
However, the magic of the market is that it does not stop at known demand or current needs. It anticipates demand for products which do not yet exist. Specifically, individuals apply their minds to dream up new ways to deliver value. Strangely, more individuals seem to dream up new products and methods when they are politically free with their rights protected. Something called profit motive, they say.
I lost the argument with my wife. Should we encourage our children’s faith in Santa Claus? I was concerned that doing so might later undermine both our credibility as parents and our children’s belief in God.
It may not be a conversation that most couples have. Then again, must couples don’t include a former Jehovah’s Witness who was raised without holidays. As a child, I absorbed the cold hard truth dispensed from my parents. There was no Santa Claus. Other children’s parents cruelly lied to them. The privilege of knowing the truth served as consolation for receiving no presents.
Though I’ve long since rejected Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, my parents’ reasoning regarding the Santa fantasy lingered. Is there value in believing in something which is not true?
That question deserves careful consideration, and serves as a check against adult beliefs. In our postmodern, politically correct society, we commonly hear ecumenical equivocations like, “There are many paths to God.” While sharing my Christian faith, friends have more than once told me, “That’s your truth.” That rebuke stops short of saying my faith is false, claiming only that it is no more or less true than any other. But if that proves somehow valid, if one person’s faith in a flying spaghetti monster is no more or less true than my faith in Jesus Christ, what value is there in holding to either?
“Exactly!” an atheist might say. “Faith in Jesus is no better than faith in either Santa Claus or the flights of a pasta god.”
In Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, the ardent atheist and intellectual heir to objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand defines faith as the opposite of reason:
“Faith” designates blind acceptance of a certain ideational content, acceptance induced by feeling in the absence of evidence or proof.
Were this our working definition, I could agree that faith in anything is useless. However, this narrow view of faith does not encompass how the word is used in our culture. When a husband expresses faith in his wife, is he necessarily doing so in the absence of evidence? Or is his faith a bet made on the basis of past experience and intimate knowledge of her characteristics? Either scenario is possible, and surely men and women have been known to invest faith blindly. However, as a friend to a married person, we would not encourage blind faith in the same manner we would that informed by evidence.
If not now, when? Ayn Rand is being hailed for her uncanny ability to project societal trends, as our limping economy and mushrooming government begin to look more and more like the decaying America her novel depicted more than a half-century ago. Her influence on today’s political debates is indisputable — even though Paul Ryan, who gave her books to his staff and says she inspired his political career, now actively distances himself from her philosophy. And the second installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie opens October 12, promising to draw even more attention to Rand and her ideas.
Not surprisingly, with all the attention, the culture is suddenly full of pundits and instant Rand experts eager to describe her ideas in a nutshell. And it’s natural to consider all this commentary in deciding whether Rand’s novels and essays are worth reading for yourself.
But be careful; unfortunately, much of the commentary on Rand gets her badly wrong.
It’s common, for instance, to hear that Rand’s is a plutocratic philosophy — “of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy,” says Paul Krugman — one that favors “the rich” against “the poor.” Yet she rejects such categorization. The real distinction she draws in Atlas Shrugged is between thinking, productive individuals at all income levels versus the irrational and unproductive, among whom she includes worthless, political-pull-peddling CEOs.
Others claim that Rand’s open advocacy of egoism — she even wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness” — is proof that she blithely endorsed cruel predation against poor and weak people. Except that Rand explicitly rejected this account of selfishness, offering in its place a revolutionary morality that rejects sacrifice of any kind — sacrifice of self to others, but also of others to self. Rand’s new concept of “selfishness” — in which “every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others” — holds that one cannot achieve personal happiness by treating others as masters to be served or as victims to be exploited. The irony is that she is accused, by commentators who miss her central point, of endorsing precisely the form of vicious “selfishness” she so meticulously exposed and rejected.
Ain’t prosperity grand? We have so much to eat in this country that we toss nearly half of it in the trash. At least that’s the finding of a recent study conducted by a prominent environmental organization. From the Los Angeles Times:
Americans are throwing out nearly every other bite of food, wasting up to 40% of the country’s supply each year – a mass of uneaten provisions worth $165 billion, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
An average family of four squanders $2,275 in food each year, or 20 pounds per person per month, according to the nonprofit and nonpartisan environmental advocacy group.
Among the study’s prescriptions is a call for government “to set a target for food-waste reduction” as the European Parliament has. After resolving to reduce food waste, the body stated:
The most important problem in the future will be to tackle increased demand for food, as it will outstrip supply. We can no longer afford to stand idly by while perfectly edible food is being wasted. This is an ethical but also an economic and social problem, with huge implications for the environment.
The obvious alternative to any government “standing idly by” is its taking action. Whenever government takes action, it applies force. That is the NRDC’s ultimate prescription, to force Americans to reduce food waste. This is ironic since government action already plays a substantial role in the amount of food produced and consumed. The Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards explains:
Farm subsidies damage the economy. In most industries, market prices balance supply and demand and encourage efficient production. But Congress short–circuits market mechanisms in agriculture. Farm programs cause overproduction, the overuse of marginal farmland, land price inflation and excess borrowing by farm businesses.
Force is not a morally permissible or practically effective means of guiding productive behavior. Our rejection of slavery is an acknowledgment of that truth. Yet the notion that government ought to act forcefully to prevent pollution and reduce waste remains popular. Why?
The case built by green movement organizations like the NRDC relies on a tightly wound knot of lies. These falsehoods appear in the NRDC’s mission “to safeguard the Earth, its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends,” as well as its “priority issues”:
- Curbing global warming
- Creating the clean energy future
- Reviving the world’s oceans
- Defending endangered wildlife and wild places
- Protecting our health by preventing pollution
- Ensuring safe and sufficient water
- and; Fostering sustainable communities
Underlying this mission and these goals are six green lies which threaten to starve you and your family…
It shouldn’t matter that I, an author with the audacity to select such a title, am black. The arguments presented should stand or fall on their objective merit. Nevertheless, I declare my racial identity at the outset to defuse any prejudice readers may bring regarding the motivation behind this piece. Indeed, it is in part because I am black that the following must be said.
All things considered, blacks and the civil rights culture surrounding them are the most open and prolific purveyors of racism in America. This is an ironic travesty which spits upon the graves of history’s abolitionists and offends all who are committed to a dream of equality under the law and goodwill among men.
Surely, such a claim is provocative. Unfortunately, it is also demonstrable.
In a recent interview with National Public Radio host Michel Martin, the Oscar-winning black actor Morgan Freeman made the odd declaration that President Barack Obama is not America’s first black president. NPR reports:
“First thing that always pops into my head regarding our president is that all of the people who are setting up this barrier for him … they just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white American, Kansas, middle of America,” Freeman said. “There was no argument about who he is or what he is. America’s first black president hasn’t arisen yet. He’s not America’s first black president — he’s America’s first mixed-race president.”
This is a new take on Obama’s racial identity from Freeman, who has previously cited Obama’s blackness as the chief motivation behind political opposition from both Republicans in Congress and the Tea Party movement. From an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan:
… Morgan asked the actor, “Has Obama helped the process of eradicating racism or has it, in a strange way, made it worse?”
“Made it worse. Made it worse,” Freeman replied. “The tea partiers who are controlling the Republican party … their stated policy, publicly stated, is to do whatever it takes to see to it that Obama only serves one term. What underlines that? Screw the country. We’re going to do whatever we can to get this black man out of here.”
Apparently, Obama is black enough to trigger baseless charges of racism, but not black enough to qualify as the first black president. If that makes your brain hurt, you might be rational.
Freeman’s comments are not anomalies. He channels long-held, broadly accepted ideas regarding what it means to be black, the relevance of race, and the claim of blacks upon the rest of society. These ideas are horrifically racist, yet uniquely tolerated.
The tolerance of racist ideas openly expressed by blacks and the larger civil rights establishment is informed by sloppy thinking regarding both race and the role of government in society. True reconciliation requires confronting these ideas with reason. Here are eight ways in which blacks are perpetuating racism, and the one true way to effectively thwart it.
With David Forsmark’s popular article earlier this month on the 7 Most Badass Founding Fathers, there seems to be some confusion about what it means to be “badass.” Some thought such a word inappropriate or even childish in reference to the very serious military leaders, politicians, and political theorists of the founding era.
It’s time to rescue “badass” from his mysterious origins, dust him off, and send him out onto the main stage where he belongs, as one of pop culture’s best imaginative metaphors for masculine bravado. This is a tool advocates of traditional, classical liberal values should grasp and take with them as they go forth fixing our broken culture.
The concept forever embedded itself within Generation X and Millennial pop cultural consciousness through the most badass character of 1990s cinema: Jules Winfield, as performed by Samuel L. Jackson and created by writers Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. The famous “burger scene” in which Jules combines witty lines, tough confidence, and smooth intellectualism (a fictionalized Ezekiel 25:17) before dispensing justice crystallizes the concept. Brains + Brawn + Controlled Emotion = the tools to accomplish one’s mission.
The Badass doesn’t just talk, feel, and think — he combines all three to then create and do. (Hence why the founders in creating our nation were uniquely badass.) Defining manly cool in this fashion has been the task of Generation X’s men for the last 20 years. And we see it across genres, mediums, and even in real life.
Tarantino collaborator and fellow Gen X-er Robert Rodriguez has further helped define the badass in the action genre. The nameless Mariachi in Desperado played by Antonio Banderas captures it in this memorable action sequence where one man overcomes an entire bar full of thugs:
Rodriguez’s Sin City, adapting artist Frank Miller’s graphic novel series, also offers a good definition of the Badass persona:
But Generation X Badass isn’t limited to pop culture and fantasy.
Megan Fox wrote about a recent real-life example of a Generation X Badass last weekend when Wayne Brady responded to Bill Maher complaining that Obama resembled him instead of the criminal Suge Knight:
“So, that means it’s a diss to Obama to be called me because he wants a brother-brother, or what he perceives. Just because you f*** black hookers, just because you have that particular black experience….
“Now, I’m not saying I’m Billy Badass, but if Bill Maher has his perception of what’s black wrapped up, I would gladly slap the sh** out of Bill Maher in the middle of the street, and then I want to see what Bill Maher would do.”
“Now, Bill Maher would call the cops and he would have his lawyer — I’d get sued and lose my house and it’s not worth it for me,” he continued. “But the black man part of me would be so satisfied to slap the shit out of him in front of Cocoa and Ebony and Fox, the three ladies of the night that he has hired … and Fancy, who also happened to be named Tyrique at one point.”
Confronting bullies like Maher is central to being a badass. And doing it by cutting to the core — identifying Maher’s own personal racial hypocrisy — is badass.
In the political realm, one man forever defined Generation X Badass:
As Andrew Breitbart was to cultural Marxism with New Media, my friend Bosch Fawstin is to the stealth jihadists with his chosen medium of graphic art. The second issue of his long-awaited The Infidel is now on sale as digital download for $3.00 here. The first issue is available here.
The Infidel tells the story of twin brothers Sal and Killian Duke who respond very differently to the mass murders of 9/11. One of them, untroubled by the religious motivations of the killers, reaffirms his commitment to Islam. The other, Killian, completes his rejection of his family’s faith by pledging to use his artistic talents to create an anti-jihad comic hero named Pigman.
The Infidel obviously draws from the author’s own life. Bosch is an ex-Muslim and an Objectivist. And he employs a comic technique utilized by other graphic novel auteurs. Just as Grant Morrison made King Mob of The Invisibles resemble himself, Warren Ellis’s Spider Jerusalem of Transmetropolitan mirrored his creator, and Neil Gaiman cast the The Sandman‘s brooding Lord Morpheus as his avatar, Bosch has created his digital doppelgänger in Killian.
I wonder: Is Bosch drawing a character based on himself or is he introducing the world to the fictional character idealization that he strives to be? (Deep down aren’t we all just trying to play a fictional character version of ourselves?)
I won’t spoil the plot — or reveal the provocative cliff-hanger that concludes this installment. Instead, for this collection of some of my favorite excerpts from The Infidel #2 I’ve replicated the style of my review of Dennis Prager’s Still the Best Hope, juxtaposing images and embedded videos along with an observation about how Bosch’s work relates to the concept of the badass.
In preparing to engage with Bosch’s world, a good place to start is this panel from Table for One, his first graphic novel about an individualist waiter making his way in the treacherous, superficial world of fine dining:
Abandon hope all ye moral relativists who enter Bosch Fawstin’s world here…