Not Exactly Brain Surgery

This week I did a little job for a rocket scientist. It reminded me of this skit from The Mitchell & Webb Look about a meeting between two very intelligent (if obnoxious) men. Enjoy:

Which reminds me of a joke:

A guy walks into a bar and orders three martinis. The bartender says, “You know you can just buy them one at a time.” The guy laughs and tells that he is new in town. He used to live near his brother and sister and had drinks with them every night, so he wants to recreate this to cheer himself up. The bartender gives him three martinis, the guy drinks one and leaves. This goes on for the next month: guy orders three martinis, drinks one, leaves. Then one evening, the guy walks in and orders two martinis. The bartender says, “I hope nothing happened to your brother or sister.” The guy says, “No, I just decided to quit drinking.”

That’s a very sweet joke. Have a good night.

Fucktards! Fucktards Everywhere! But Not A One to Shoot!

Don't Urinate on This SiteSomething went very wrong when I wrote about Moe Tucker, the mediocre drummer for the Velvet Underground, and how she had become a member of the Tea Party. It has brought out a lot of loons—non-regular readers who come to the site somehow (not from search engines as far as I can tell). Mostly everyone thinks that I’m just so mean to poor Maureen. One commenter was smart and even insightful. But the others are just garbage.

I like it when people disagree with me. This is one way that I learn and grow, because (Shocking!) I’m not always right. But most of these people are just yelling at me—they have no point other than that I’m wrong and an asshole. One commenter was upset at my “foul mouth” and called me a “parasite.”

From time to time, I am an asshole on other people’s sites. It doesn’t happen often and the last time I did it was probably two years ago, and even that turned into a good and productive exchange. So I understand that people have bad days and say things that they would not an hour later. But the harshness of these attacks makes me think these are intolerant people who shit on me and my site and move on with their webwide fertilizing project.

I wonder what to do about these commenters. I could just deny them, but that seems like it gives them too much power over me. I could continue to respond, but there are two problems there: the fucktards don’t deserve it and it is emotionally draining. I’m especially not up to being emotionally drained. I visit a lot of websites where people say things I disagree with—that’s how I keep myself intellectually honest. But I don’t post incendiary comments. I don’t go to libertarian sites and yell at the owners about how only assholes are libertarians.

A website is like a small business—a bakery, say. Anyone is allowed in my bakery. But when a person comes in to scream about how I don’t know anything about making cookies, they have broken the implicit contract we have. The deal is that you come in, you browse the cookies, maybe you buy them or maybe you tell me that you don’t like them. And that’s it. Now, if you think the guy behind the counter is a loud mouthed asshole, don’t come in the bakery. I don’t visit Bill O’Reilly’s bakery. (And you shouldn’t either; his cookies have worms that eat your brain—really!)

I suppose I am over thinking this. These people could just be having a bad day, in which case I understand—no foul. Or they could be, as I said, webwide fertilizers. In that case, I just need to treat them as the other major nuisance of website management: spammers. Both groups are made up of assholes who don’t care that the little reward they get from soiling my website is far outweighed by the harm done to my website and its readers.

The customer is not always right!

Conservative Definition of “Liberal”

Mitch McConnellSuzy Khimm over at WonkBlog reports that Harry Reid read an Ornstein and Mann OpEd on the floor of the Senate this morning. It was about Republican obstruction in Congress. You know: the kind of thing that no serious person could contest.

But that doesn’t mean a silly (or evil) person couldn’t contest it! Mitch McConnell was having none of this talk of Republican obstruction. What he said really struck me, because it encapsalates the conservative mindset:

The reason I’m having a hard time restraining my laughter—I know Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. They’re ultraliberals.

Needless to say, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann are not ultraliberals. Ornstein, for example, is a Republican who works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. They are centrists, even by the highly conservative American political scale. By international standards, they both skew very conservative. But this is how conservatives of the Mitch McConnell kind think: if you aren’t a conservative extremist, you are a liberal. I first noticed this in conservative claims that the media were liberal. This amazed me until I realized that by “liberal” they meant “not conservative.”

Once you understand this, everything else falls in place. So sure, Ornstein and Mann are ultraliberals. They must be! They’re not Nazis.

Paul Ryan Shrugged

Ayn RandBack in 2009, Jonathan Chait wrote a substantial article about Ayn Rand for The New Replublic. In particular, he discussed how Rand has changed the modern conservative movement, even as she was never a part of it.

As most people know, Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand devotee. On the surface, this seems kind of strange because Ryan is a Roman Catholic and Rand was a hardcore (and not very thoughtful) atheist. But as I think you can tell from Ryan’s famous budget, he has much more faith in Ayn Rand than Jesus Christ.

Paul Ryan is the perfect person to illustrate the influence of Ayn Rand today (although Chait doesn’t discuss him in the article—probably because Ryan wasn’t that notable in 2009). I say this because he is the very embodiment of these two aspects of Ayn Rand’s thought that live on.

Moral Superiority

Rand didn’t believe that capitalism was necessarily the most efficient economic system (Efficient Markets), nor did she necessarily believe that capitalism was better for our species in the long run (Social Darwinists). To her, capitalism was a moral system. Ludwig von Mises once told Rand, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” And this is exactly what Paul Ryan and his conservative peers believe. Chait writes:

The association of wealth with virtue necessarily requires the free marketer to play down the role of class. Arthur Brooks, in his book Gross National Happiness, concedes that “the gap between the richest and poorest members of society is far wider than in many other developed countries. But there is also far more opportunity . . . there is in fact an amazing amount of economic mobility in America.” In reality, as a study earlier this year by the Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts reported, the United States ranks near the bottom of advanced countries in its economic mobility. The study found that family background exerts a stronger influence on a person’s income than even his education level. And its most striking finding revealed that you are more likely to make your way into the highest-earning one-fifth of the population if you were born into the top fifth and did not attain a college degree than if you were born into the bottom fifth and did. In other words, if you regard a college degree as a rough proxy for intelligence or hard work, then you are economically better off to be born rich, dumb, and lazy than poor, smart, and industrious.

Hysteria!

Rand’s other great contribution to modern conservatism is her use of hysteria. You know the stuff: “The government wants to ban machine guns; if they can ban machine guns they will ban all guns; if they ban all guns we won’t be able to protect ourselves; if we can’t protect ourselves the government will put us in concentration camps.” Observation: government suggests banning machine guns. Conclusion: Nazi Germany.

What we most see—including from Paul Ryan just about anytime he speaks at length—is to jump from “I disagree with that policy” to “Socialism!” Again, Chait:

What is so striking, and serves as the clearest mark of Rand’s lasting influence, is the language of moral absolutism applied by the right to these questions. Conservatives define the see-sawing of the federal tax-and-transfer system between slightly redistributive and very slightly redistributive as a culture war over capitalism, or a final battle to save the free enterprise system from the hoard of free-riders.

Some people may wonder about my keen interest in Ayn Rand. There are a few reasons. One is that I have read the majority of her work. And I have given it serious and prolonged thought. It is, on the whole, shockingly bad. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that liking Any Rand depends not on being intelligent and thoughtful, but just the opposite. Rand offers mediocre and undisciplined minds the choice to shut down and parrot her easily understood dogma. And I am most definitely talking about the supposed intellectual Paul Ryan.

I wish to understand why Rand has been so successful, and that is my main reason for being interested. Rand’s writing is far more popular than most people think. Over 50 years after she published it, Atlas Shrugged still sells over a half million copies every year. And as Chait documents, a lot of very powerful people like Paul Ryan take seriously her “two-dimensional characters serving as ideological props” in plots so superficial and boring they would make Pollyanna cynical.

Rather than trying to be the Romantic heroes of Rand’s limited fictional universe, it would be better if Paul Ryan had done the honest thing: shrug.