Open Letter to the Blue Team

Blue Team:

As you may have noticed, it is possible, sometimes, to tell how someone votes by the arrangement of their yard. I say, “sometimes,” because most yards are neutral. There’s a lawn, probably, and some landscaping. There might be a fence, or a garden gnome. If there are children in the house, there might be toys scattered around. None of these tell us much about a homeowner’s politics.

But there are a few yards that do tell. The crisply mown lawn, edged to perfection, with a swept driveway cutting through it in stark contrast. The metal shed at the back, or a workshop, or a number of trim outbuildings, with clean walls of beige or gray, and bare, except perhaps for a thermometer. The faint chemical smell of fertilizer. A sense of readiness and order. This is a red-team yard. Count on it.

On the other hand: a compost pile, hidden behind a wild profusion of greenery. Sunflowers. A vegetable garden. A tangle of green so thick and profuse it seems more wild than an untouched field or forest. Flashes of color, stained glass and brass or copper. A path to the house through the green, made of natural stone. A neglected driveway, an afterthought. This is a blue-team yard, no question.

Have you ever wondered what causes these strange consonances?  Why should Obama voters prefer one style of yard, and Bush voters another? Certainly there’s no direct link between being pro-lawn-fertilizer and being pro-life. Certainly there’s no direct link between funky yard art and being pro-choice. What’s going on?

I’ll leave that for you to puzzle over, if you like. Whatever the cause, it’s plain that red teamers and blue teamers have more in common, intramurally, than mere politics. These commonalities can be found and contrasted in other areas, too.

For example: Blues, you’re earthier than the reds. You have an affinity for life as it is, growing on the earth. You don’t try to scold life into behaving “as it should.” You try to follow its grain, explore its nooks, taste everything it offers. It makes you better cooks.

It also makes you better company, often times. Reds are rigid thinkers, easily made uneasy. Consequently, their small talk is as bland as their canned dinner rolls. Tell a red teamer about that theme park you’ve always wanted to build — the one with roller coasters that toss you through waterfalls to land in pools teeming with android mermaids, where you must catch holograms of talking fish in nets made of laser light, then hold them to your ear to get the password to the water slide, the one that goes down to a hidden grotto bar, where strong drinks are served in goblets like conch shells and everyone drinks merrily until the coaster cars come around again — and they’ll just say, “Whoo-kay.” They’ll miss the invitation to talk about fantastic sights as yet unseen. A pity.

There are other points blue teamers can justly pride themselves on, I think. But at least one common point of pride among you is one you haven’t earned. Although false modesty prevents you from saying so plainly, you believe yourselves to have evolved beyond bigotry. Or at least, you believe yourselves more evolved on this point than the rednecks, Republicans, and Walmart shoppers you disdain. But you are bigots. You are the worst, most complete, most perfectly closed-off, vacuum sealed, and hopeless bigots I have ever, in my life, encountered.

The fulcrum of your bigotry is pride in your education. Those who oppose you are often, so you say, mentally ill (racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, etc.), they might be malevolent too (although you hesitate to say so, unless they’re winning), but they are almost always, as you understand it, ignorant. Everyone who disagrees with you is ignorant. You know this, because, if they weren’t ignorant, they would agree with you. You learned this in college. Your opponents must either have not gone to college, or they went, but somehow missed getting educated.

In the wake of the Trump phenomenon, several of your own have taken you to task for this obdurate smugness. Here’s an excerpt from a typical example, and a good one, from Emmett Rensin writing at

Elites, real elites, might recognize one another by their superior knowledge. The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing.

Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better. Knowing all the jokes that signal this knowledge.

… It is the smug style’s first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.

But the friendly critics like Rensin merely want you to modulate your rhetoric. They don’t deny that you’ve got science on your side. No, they just want you to try addressing the red team with arguments rather than insults, because they think this approach will be more likely to advance your political goals. They frame your smugness as a tactical misstep, not as what it is: a character flaw.

The problem isn’t that you are wise in matters of policy, but foolish in matters of strategy. The problem is that you are fools, full stop. And you are not benign fools, either. You are the worst and most dangerous kinds of fools; you are fools who think yourselves wise. You are sophomores who never graduate, who never stand to defend a thesis. You are Eternal Sophomores, mere beginners, who are aware that they have learned something, and mistake that tiny something for the whole of wisdom.

You vaunt your education, but I have seen the kind of work you do. I’ve seen how uncritically you accept your instructors’ framing of issues. I’ve seen how little time you spend in libraries, seeking out contrary views, how dependent you are on sources that are handed to you. I’ve seen how sloppily you put your papers together, how you raid your sources, just as Nietzsche says the “worst readers” do:

The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.

In short, I’ve seen how little you value ideas, even your own. You don’t take them seriously. You never have taken them seriously. You might never take them seriously. For you, an idea is good if it helps you fit in with the crowd you’ve chosen. An idea is good if supporting it earns you nods or Facebook Likes from the right people. You would disagree. You would say you think an idea is good if it is true, or perhaps if it is useful. But you have no way of measuring ideas against these standards, and you’re not interested in learning how to do it. When you say you care about the truth, you lie.

I’ve watched you long enough to know that this isn’t a passing phase. It’s not the shock of Trump’s victory that’s got you dabbling in sophistry. This is your true, authentic, ultimately self-expressive stance toward ideas: they don’t matter. What matters is being liked by the right people, holding the right opinions, and knowing, as Rensin says, the “Good Facts.” It’s all a game for you.

And this is what makes you bigots. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines a bigot as:

A person who is obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a particular religious creed, opinion, practice or ritual. The word is sometimes used in an enlarged sense, for a person who is illiberally attached to any opinion, or system of belief; as a bigot to the Mohammedan religion; a bigot to a form of government.

An unwillingness to honestly consider arguments or evidence is the essence of bigotry, not racial prejudice, or any of the boogeymen of the contemporary left. Bigotry is unreason; it is an indifference to reality. Bigotry isn’t fundamentally about our attitudes toward other groups. If it were true that, for example, gay marriage were a threat to our civilization, then to be against it would not be bigoted. To refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple would not be bigoted. But it is bigoted, right now, today, when blue teamers refuse to duly consider the arguments the red team marshals for this flawed thesis.

Blue teamers, it has become fashionable of late to distance oneself socially from those who hold differing political opinions. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Perhaps you’ve done this yourself. But when you do this, it’s not your instinct for self-preservation at work, or a cautious prudence, or some kindergarten ethos that bids you to say nothing at all, since you can’t say anything nice. It’s your bigotry. Your unreason. Your Eternal damned Sophomorism. You know this as well as I do. So do better.

Make an argument for once. Hear an argument for once. Take it all the way to the end. I really don’t think you can do it. I think you’re too far gone. But because some of you — when I choose to overlook your loathsome bigotry — are some of my favorite people, I’m rooting for you.

Closing the Book on the Open Letter

This is the third entry in my Antistatism Series. Before I can make my own case for antistatism, I must pause to redress a famously misaddressed letter on a related subject.

In 1969 Roy Childs began an Open Letter to Ayn Rand with these words:

The purpose of this letter is to convert you to free market anarchism. As far as I can determine, no one has ever pointed out to you in detail the errors in your political philosophy. … Why am I making such an attempt to convert you to a point of view which you have, repeatedly, publicly condemned as a floating abstraction? Because you are wrong. I suggest that your political philosophy cannot be maintained without contradiction, that, in fact, you are advocating the maintenance of an institution — the state — which is a moral evil. To a person of self-esteem, these are reasons enough.

In part, Childs’ Letter, “Objectivism and the State,” was a response to Rand’s article “The Nature of Government,” in which she had called anarchy a “naive floating abstraction.” Childs went on in his Letter to complement Rand’s dismissal:

[L]imited government is a floating abstraction which has never been concretized by anyone … a limited government must either initiate force or cease being a government … the very concept of limited government is an unsuccessful attempt to integrate two mutually contradictory elements: statism and voluntarism. [Emphasis in original.]

Even those admirers of Ayn Rand’s who are wholly unfamiliar with Childs will be unsurprised to learn that his Letter failed utterly to persuade the philosopher it addressed. Could Childs have done better, then? What arguments would have been more persuasive? Why did Childs fail, fundamentally?

Continue reading Closing the Book on the Open Letter

Premature Identification

One of the things I find most striking about Objectivism is its subtlety. I’m in the minority. The lucidity of Ayn Rand’s writing, I think, tends to fool her admirers nearly as often as it fools her critics. She reduces complex issues to essentials, casts fine lines of distinction in sharp relief, illuminates the obscure, and penetrates the impenetrable. She makes it look easy.

It’s not easy.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. And an argument, to be refuted, must be comprehended, which means it must be surrounded with understanding. Ayn Rand made dispatching her opponents look easy because, far more often than not, she had them surrounded.

To my dismay, I’ve observed too many who call themselves Objectivists surround their interlocutors’ arguments, not with understanding, but with mere words. This isn’t comprehension; it’s circumlocution.

And in fact, it’s often worse than that. Continue reading Premature Identification

This Is Not a Thought

Imagine this: you wake up one day, and realize you are in an insane asylum. Shortly, you put it together that you’ve been here all your life. There are several reasons why it had been difficult to recognize your situation: The inmates and the staff in this asylum dress and act alike, and it is not a trivial matter to discern each from the other. Though circumlocutory talk of “escaping” the asylum is among the inmates’ favorite pastimes, very few walk out, which is remarkable, considering the grounds are only nominally secured. In fact, only staff are not permitted to leave, which does not seem to bother them. A further oddity is that inmates and staff alike tend to talk of the asylum as if its construction were the definitive achievement of humanity.

This is a tired metaphor. I’ve put it to use in part because I myself am a bit tired. (And, truth be told, I disdain readers who get fussy if the metaphors they’re presented with aren’t “fresh” — by which they of course mean titillating.) For the other part, I’ve put it to use because it’s apt. Providing context and such, nice gentle spiral ramps of words … these are superfluous in an asylum. Freed from the Sisyphean task of translating myself into the carpet-munching vernacular, I hope I’ll feel inclined to post more often. That is all.

It’s Mahler Time

The blog is a strange creature, from where I sit. Not this blog, but rather the web log as a form of written communication. The modally average blog burns a lot of bits commenting on the “issues of the day” and commenting on others’ commentary on the same. I sometimes think I should do that, as it would give me material for the short, easily produced and digested posts that are the mainstay of bloggers everywhere. Now and then I do post a post like that, but gads, it’s been over a year.

You see, I’m … Nonplussed?

No. That’s not it. Plus, I’ve always hated that word. It’s the kind of word that shows up in 6th-grade readers out of plain bad taste. Something more apt is out there. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug,” so the man said. Normally, I’d use the Oxford English Dictionary in a situation like this. But right now I don’t have access to it, so I’ll improvise.

Bewildered … is wrong too. Odysseus leaps to mind. He’s is trying to get home from Troy, Poseidon sticks his nose in, and the many-minded tactician is— bewildered. Bewildered folk want to get out of the woods; I follow Thoreau in thinking that staying lost has distinct advantages. And I’ve got no home to go to anyhow. That’s part of the problem.

Stupefied. There’s a word I like. Sam Elliott’s Stranger put a form of it to savory use in The Big Lebowski. But there are connotation problems here. I have known those who overindulge in marijuana to be stupefied by their habit. Stupefied and stupid are kissin’ cousins, etymologically speaking. I’d hate to give the impression that my faculties are impaired or inadequate to this rather modest task.

Dumbstruck. Struck dumb. Beaten into silence by the horrific spectacle before me. I’m a situational aphasiac; in my situation, by god, I look at the world and its news and my diction decomposes into froth. I’m like a rabid dog gargling seltzer with Cesium. There are no words.

The world is mad. Stark, raving mad. Words are all but useless. If the whole world’s a padded cell, packed with prancing Napoleons, do you prance along to get along? (Don’t think of calling the guards — they’re busy comparing imaginary mustaches and debating whether one and which of them is the Man of Steel and which of them may be instead the Antichrist.) Do you try to persuade the inmates that there’re better ways to go about the business of living than posturing with one hand thrust between your buttons?

What’s eloquence in the ears of lunatics? It’s shrilling fife and it’s fluid flowing out past the eardrums after a swift blow to the head. Eloquence is sweet, susurrant nothings uttered in air ionized by ten thousand sparking cattle prods.

Here’s a koan no Napoleon can crack:

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables. Coming up to him, Plato said, “My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.”

“And,” replied Diogenes, “if you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to pay court to kings.”

But that’s no koan at all to those of who don’t roll on our backs and pee at the sight of a flag-capped rotunda. To anyone willing to wash his own goddamn vegetables if it comes to it, the whole circus of modernity is superfluous. We don’t need a state to keep us off of each other’s throats. As we see it, Nature itself is a sufficient support for human life. It doesn’t need to be hussied-up by politicians and their puppeteers.

“[I]ndeed, it has often seemed to me as if anyone calling for an intellectual conscience were as lonely in the most densely populated cities as if he were in a desert.”

Perhaps I’m bewildered after all. And perhaps I shouldn’t worry, on second thought. I mean, look at the alternative.