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23 October 2004


One of the things I've resolved to do with this blog is to use it for archiving my better posts from Little Green Footballs, which is where I do most of my "thinky" writing these days.

I was actually encouraged to do this by some positive comments I got from other LGF readers after posting a retort to a particularly snotty atheist. I don't think I smacked him too hard, nor did I intend to, since I was once a zealous young atheist myself, eager to show how I'd vivisected Jehovah with the glittering scalpel of pure logic.

Anyhew, it started like this, in a thread linking to a great piece of Flash animation that presented a visual montage of images -- 9/11, Dubya, mujahideen, Dubya, Iraq, Dubya -- to the accompaniment of Johnny Cash's ''When The Man Comes Around.'' Some posters immediately noticed that "The Man" of the song is J.H. Christ himself, which caused a little bit of consternation -- non-Christian readers were put off by the apparent Jesus boosterism, while some Christians objected that the implied comparison between the Son of Mary (in the lyrics) and the son of Barbara (in the visuals) was just a smidgen over the top. I waded in about 160 posts into the thread:

#99 levi from queens:
alpha and omega do make it a Christian song. whirlwind is in the thorntrees-- not bilblical by my reading -- but a great image. virgins trimming their wicks -- the parable of the wise and foolish virgins at Matthew 25:1-10. At 7, the wise virgins trim their wicks.

It is indeed a Christian song, and I hope that Jews and my fellow agnostics/atheists and other non-Christians are not put off by that fact. I look at it this way: I can enjoy classical Greek and Roman mythology without being a worshipper of Zeus or Diana; I can appreciate artistic depictions of Vishnu or Ganesh without believing a word of Hindu cosmology; likewise, I can find wisdom in Christian scriptures and sacred music even though I don't believe that Jesus was the Son of God (and in fact I doubt that there's a God for him to have been the Son of).

Meanwhile, another poster, Julia, beamed down from the planet Vulcan to intone:

I caution anyone in basing their support of any candidate on any emotional elicitation, be it from the Republicans or the Democrats. It's not about feelings. It's about survival. But marketing makes it otherwise.
I found this film to be smarmy

...which provoked a really excellent response from Nuclear Tinkerbell (who, by the way, is a nice lady and a Friend of Rugby the Rat):

Julia's aversion to becoming an automaton reminded me of this: Memetic virus exchange
A controversial application of this "selfish meme" parallel is the idea that certain collections of memes can act as "memetic viruses" [...]
There is a tendency in memetics to disparage religious memes. However, some authorities speculate that traditional religions act as mental immune systems to suppress new memes that can be harmful. For example, Christianity forbids both murder and suicide, and its precise definitions of heresy assure that new religions that advocate such actions cannot be accepted by educated Christians.
There is nothing wrong with fighting for control of the meme - especially in an election which will determine all of our futures. We need more flash-shows like this - any positive piece of information which can be inserted to counter (or over-write) the current meme which is saturated with detrimental messages.

Nuclear Tinkerbell and I must've pointed to the same tub when G-d was dishin' out 31 Flavors of Brains with his big neurological ice-cream scoop, because I immediately understood how she'd made the mental segue from Julia's plaint about the "smarmy" Flash animation to the topic of memetics. Namely, there are times when the most important thing is to propagate that meme, even if it makes you feel like a bit of a buffoon. Even if people laugh at you for spreading the meme, you've got to go on spreading it, like a boy doggy who's determined to spurt his jizz into as many girl doggies as he can possibly find, never mind that the "girl doggy" sometimes turns out to be another boy doggy, or a human's leg, or a fur slipper. And in a time of war, we shouldn't be shy about using schmaltzy or goofy packaging in order to spread pro-America, pro-Western, pro-liberty memes. Because our enemy is ugly, and very real.

Anyway, I wrote back to Tinkerbell:

By the way, Tinkerbell, thanks for bringing up memetics. I think the meme concept is one of the all-time most brilliant scientific metaphors ever, and it breaks my heart that the originator, Richard Dawkins, can't apply his own idea in a positive way to Judeo-Christian thought.
Because not only does the meme concept provide an excellent framework for understanding the endurance of phenomena like Islamofascism and Bush Derangement Syndrome, but for me it provides a comfortable way to explore Judaism and re-visit Christianity even though I'm personally an atheist. I view religious belief systems as akin to genomes, and I can go in and extract beneficial memes to be spliced into my own worldview, without taking all the potentially harmful baggage of traditional religion.
Of course, people could do this before the "meme" concept was devised; I just think that the memetics approach makes it easier.
Incidentally, one of the things that first sparked my interest in Judaism was a Talmudic passage that someone quoted right here on LGF. The Talmud author imagines G-d declaring, "Oh, would that mankind even forget My name, but at least keep My laws!"
That struck me as a very memeticist thing to say...

At this point you may be wondering, "What in tarnation does all this have to do with smacking down a hot-headed atheist?"

Well, I was just getting to that. A little later, in a different LGF thread, the aforementioned hot-headed atheist groused:

I have no religous affiliation because they are all man-made crap.

To which I responded by quoting my thoughts on memetics as a framework for non-believers to explore the positive side of religion, as above. And I added:

The atheist who says "the Bible has nothing to teach me because there is no Supreme Being and the miracle-stories are lies made up by men" is as big a fool as the guy who says "I have nothing to learn from Aesop's Fables because everyone knows that tortoises and ants can't actually talk."

The hot-headed atheist had been taking sniper fire from all sides by this time, and emitted a sniffy little help-I'm-being-censored speck of snot:

when I state my opinion that "religion is crap", it somehow transcends the mores of acceptable discourse?

So I said:

Either I wasn't clear enough, or you're being deliberately whiny. Let me make it plain: I wasn't accusing you of being mean to religious believers; I was accusing you of being an intellectual sluggard who's too lazy to examine religions and find that there's often considerable wisdom there -- accumulated human wisdom, not infallible divine wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless.
Not all traditional religions have wisdom in the same proportions, however. Judaism and Islam provide the starkest possible contrast, and one needn't assume the intervention of G-d or Satan to understand why Jews have made such outstanding contributions to philosophy, to science, to philanthropy, while Muslims, for almost all of their history, have excelled only by pillaging and scavenging the creativity of other cultures. The key difference is that Judaism constantly encourages debate and argument and self-examination and skeptical scrutiny of tradition, while Islam declared itself complete and perfect early on, slammed the door on debate, and has been a stagnant intellectual swamp ever since.
I used Judaism and Islam as examples, but the wise atheist should recognize that other religious traditions as well have wisdom mixed in with the supernatural claptrap. As an atheist, you're free to take the wisdom and discard the hocus-pocus. But you're a fool if you throw away the wisdom because you disdain the miracle stories.
So when you say "religion is crap," you aren't crossing the bounds of acceptable discourse; you're crossing the bounds of intelligent discourse.
Or, more bluntly, you're not being TOO RUDE; you're being TOO STUPID.

posted by Throbert | 10/23/2004 01:46:00 AM | (1) responses

22 October 2004


Responding to my excerpts from a Florence King essay on the "anti-anti-Semitism" encoded in Ayn Rand's novels, Dumb Blonde Capitalist notes: The part that gnaws at me is the physical description of Ayn Rand's characters as Waspish in appearance. This seems to be a subtle bit of backwards stereotyping - that Jews are rarely blonde, red-headed, blue or gray-eyed.

In King's defense, I should point out that she also spent a couple of paragraphs noting that Rand's characters typically have names that sound WASP-y or Irish -- excluding altogether the casts of We the Living (set in Russia) and Anthem (set in a future collectivist dystopia where everyone has names like "Solidarity 3-5027")! And the few exceptions to this pattern are nonetheless overtly goyish: Ragnar Danneskjold, Dominique Francon. (Presumably because she wanted to make the joke about a Scandanavian being Rand's idea of a "token ethnic," King omits Francisco D'Anconia -- hmmm, maybe he was Sephardic?)

UPDATE 2: Speaking of physical types in Rand's books, I'm reminded that she actually gave herself a 2- or 3-sentence "cameo" in early drafts of Atlas Shrugged, though it was cut from the final novel. Among the inhabitants of "Galt's Gulch" was a young fisherwoman who was described as having dark hair, "ethnic" bone structure, and arresting brown eyes -- and who clearly had a crush on the Irish-looking hero John Galt. (Rand's own husband, artist Frank O'Conner, was a good guy who never amounted to much -- but she was determined to idolize him, and "encoded" him twice in Atlas Shrugged: in the physical description of John Galt, and in the name of the suave Latin tycoon Francisco D'Anconia.)

UPDATE 3: Did I mention that I was a College Objectivist? I just recalled another piece of Rand trivia. In one of her non-fiction books, she related an exchange that took place between herself and a salesman at Random House, just before the publication of Atlas Shrugged. It went something like this:

SALESMAN: Miss Rand, can you present the essence of your philosophy while standing on one foot?
RAND: You bet your sweet ass, bubeleh. Here goes:
One, Metaphysics: Objective Reality.
Two, Epistemology: Reason.
Three, Ethics: Self-Interest.
Four, Politics: Capitalism
Thank you, folks, I'll be here all week!

I had not yet heard of Rabbi Hillel's standing-on-one-foot stunt during my College Objectivist days, but now of course I wonder whether Rand might have invented this anecdote as a little nod to her Jewish heritage.

posted by Throbert | 10/22/2004 03:01:00 AM | (0) responses


I'll be 33 on November 8. Iff'n anyone wants to buy me a present, here's my Amazon wish list.

posted by Throbert | 10/22/2004 01:08:00 AM | (0) responses

21 October 2004


While dusting the bookshelves yesterday, I stumbled across my copy of With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy, in which longtime National Review columnist Florence King anthologizes her mini-biographies of curmudgeons throughout history.

Before I had even pulled it off the shelf, I recalled that King's chapter on literary misanthropes includes some really delicious dish on laissez-faire novelist and "Objectivist philosopher" Ayn Rand, who was my intellectual hero for a few years in college. Florence King had also gone through a Rand phase in her younger years -- but like me and like many other one-time disciples, she eventually recognized Ayn Rand's rabidly neurotic side and preferred to admire Objectivism skeptically, and from a safe distance.

For those unacquainted with Ayn Rand, it is key to this essay to note that she was born Alissa Rosenbaum in pre-revolutionary Sankt-Petrburg; and that while Rand made no secret of her heritage as a Russian Jew, she always downplayed the Jewish part. Anyway, King's biographical sketch of Rand's life begins:

Another life-loving misanthrope fled Soviet Russia for America in 1926. Twenty-one-year-old Alice [sic] Rosenbaum arrived in New York lugging a Remington-Rand typewriter and some books by a Finnish writer whose surname was Ayn.

Pardon me while I interrupt King for a little trivia that may be relevant: "A Finnish writer named Ayn" was Rand's own official explanation for her adopted first name, but her biographers have pointed out that (a) no such Finnish writer has ever been tracked down, and (b) ayn -- which rhymes with "mine" -- is a Yiddish term of endearment meaning something like "bright eyes."

Although she was born in Czarist Russia in 1905 and raised in St. Petersburg, [Rand] told her biographer Barbara Branden that she had never met with the slightest manifestation of anti-Semitism, nor heard any discussion of it at home.
In The Passion of Ayn Rand, Branden posits that since anti-Semitism was ubiquitous in Russia during Rand's childhood, she had to have encountered it, but probably blocked it out of her mind "because the memory would have carried with it an unacceptable feeling of humiliation." She never denied that she was a Jew, but "it had no significance to her." Jewishness conflicted with Rand's belief that "man is a being of self-made soul," so she chose to be un-Chosen. [Emphasis added -- Th. M.]
Barbara Branden finds in Atlas Shrugged "a blistering contempt for the world," and speculates: "On a more subtle level, her hatred seemed to be rooted in a deep, terrible fear -- as if the outside world was not merely an arena where wrong ideas were held and wrong actions taken: it was an arena fraught with danger."
What was it? Studying this passage, I detect something that Barbara Branden missed in this otherwise superb biography: Ayn Rand's whole schtick was a gargantuan displacement of her never-admitted fear of anti-Semitism.
Her... philosophy based on individualism, reason, logic, objective thinking, and rejection of emotionalism would, if universally adopted, bring about an immediate end to anti-Semitism, which is a product of the Gentile id. [She] spent her entire career as a novelist crusading against anti-Semitism while taking care not to write a word about Jews.
There is not a single Jewish character in all of her work; not even... in The Fountainhead, which is set entirely in Manhattan. [...] Moreover, [all her characters, good or bad, look WASP]. Toohey is the drip with the bookbag, but everyone else is long and lanky, blond or carrot-top, blue- or gray-eyed. [...] By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Rand recognizes the need for a little ethnic variety, but what did she name the heroic pirate who hijacks ships carrying humanitarian aid? Ragnar Danneskjold -- just what the copy editor needed.
Despite their overwhelming Gentileness, Randian heroes come off as metaphors for Jews because they are beset by irrational forces that try to bar them from the professions and use their virtues against them to bring about their destruction. [Emphasis added -- Th. M.]
A minor hero of The Fountainhead gives it away. New York WASP sculptor Stephen Mallory's definition of terror echoes the age-old keening Why? of the persecuted Jew:
"To me, [terror is] being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a... maniac who's had some disease that's eaten his brain out... You'd scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you'd have the most eloquent words... you'd become the vessel of absolute truth. And you'd... know that the thing can't hear you, that it can't be reached... yet it's breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of its own."
In Atlas Shrugged, the Wyoming mountain sanctuary "Galt's Gulch," into which the rational creators and captains of industry disappear and start their own community, is Ayn Rand's Israel. The [WASP] inhabitants are [Rand's] Chosen People, exiles who actually do what the Jews have always been accused of doing: running the world.

P.S. Apologies to Florence King in case the selected passages exceed fair-use lengths. She's a brilliant writer, and With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy is available from Amazon, along with her other works. Go and buy!

posted by Throbert | 10/21/2004 07:43:00 PM | (0) responses

19 October 2004

Getting back to the blog habit

Looking around this place, you'd think I'd been in a coma since March.

But that's not the case; I've just been writing in other forums and FORGETTING TO POST COPIES here on the blog.

I've written a lot of good stuff in the comments section of Little Green Footballs, for example -- stuff that is now almost impossible for me to find in the archives because I can't remember the thread it was in, nor can I recall the right keywords to search on.

So, I've resolved to be more methodical about archiving my good stuff here on the blog, even if it was originally written for another forum. (On a sub-conscious level, I feel like I'm cheating my readers if I do that -- I just need to keep reminding myself that most of the people who happen upon this site have not previously read the same material elsewhere.)

posted by Throbert | 10/19/2004 11:30:00 PM | (0) responses
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