Friday, April 19, 2013

Poland's Fight and the Essence of Judaism - Korzybski's Response to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (An excerpt from Korzybski: A Biography)

In honor of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began 70 years ago in April 1943, I'm publishing the first few pages of Chapter 55 of Korzybski: A Biography. This section deals with Korzybski's 1943 response to the fate of Poles and Polish Jewry under the iron heel of the Nazi tyranny:  Poland's_Fight_and_the_Essence_of_Judaism

Monday, April 8, 2013

Ayn Nation Under God - A Review

The full title of Hart William’s book of connected essays, Ayn Nation Under God: A Rational Examination As To Why Ayn Rand Is Full Of It, indicates Williams' intent and point of view quite well. The essays (most of which appeared in slightly different form on Williams' blog from 2005 to 2012)  do not pretend to any faux ‘objectivity’. But despite his generally negative opinion of Ayn Rand’s work, her fans and followers will make a mistake if they dismiss Williams’ ebook, available in Amazon Kindle format, as not worthy of their reading time and effort. For them, and for the non-fans of Rand—in and out of academia—many of whom have dismissed her work as unimportant, Williams provides a most valuable service by treating Rand with the respect she deserves as one of the most influential figures of mid-20th Century to early 21st Century American thought. 

A veteran print journalist, blogger, screenwriter, novelist and all-around scribe (see His Vorpal Sword) Williams adduces a great deal of evidence to show that Rand—founder of a philosophical school she called "Objectivism"—has become a revered figure and a major inspiration for the Republican Right (especially its more secular wing representing finance and banking) and the allied Libertarian movement, both of which cherish and feel bolstered by Rand’s uber-individualist, anti-government, but pro-corporate outlook. Williams has carefully studied Rand’s work and his “rational examination” focuses on her basic premises: her view of ‘reason’, which he finds inadequate, and her basic understanding of human nature, which he finds lacking, indeed monstrously so. His criticism seems to me—a student and advocate of Alfred Korzybski’s non-aristotelian viewpoint—devastatingly apt.

Although Williams has not studied Korzybski’s work, he has clearly been influenced by some of the ongoing non-aristotelian currents that Korzybski saw developing in the  scientific, intellectual culture of his time, which he sought to systematize and enhance by means of the teachable system that he called “general semantics”. Non-aristotelian I should emphasize was not for Korzybski anti-Aristotle, not even anti aristotelian logic. Aristotle’s logic, for example, may still remain useful—where it applies. But Korzybski did reject the essentialist structural assumptions or metaphysics which Aristotle’s logic in particular embodies when interpreted, as Ayn Rand did, as the overarching basis for human ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’ rather than as a limited set of guidelines for some forms of discourse.

 In his first and perhaps best chapter (written especially for the book), Williams, who as a college philosophy major studied mathematical logic, gives his take on Rand’s trumpeting of the aristotelian ‘laws of thought’ and ‘pure logic’ as the basis for ‘reason’ (in Atlas Shrugged, she titled the three sections of the book “Non-Contradiction”, “Either-Or”, and “A is A”). Williams writes that when he first saw her “A is A” years ago, he said “When?”: “A is A sometimes, but other times it’s not exactly A. In fact, when you say A, you are just specifying THIS A at THAT exact moment in time, which that A will never be again. But it’s close enough for government work, or, in this case, anti-government work.” Williams further discussion of aristotelian logic seems quite in keeping with Korzybski’s take: overdependence on it by using it as a general orientation, as Rand and her followers do, leads to evaluational rigidity and inflexibility.

William’s critique of Rand’s view of human nature also appears quite devastating. Rand cut her heroes from a cartoonish mold where, just as with the fabled politician, they built with their own two hands the log cabin they were born in. She elevates to sacred doctrine an extreme individualism that takes little to no account of the social matrix upon which any individual human accomplishment is based. Perhaps Williams doesn’t know much about Korzybski’s characterization of humanity as the time-binding class of life, but throughout the book he demonstrates his implicit understanding of the time-binding character of humanity and its incompatibility with Rand’s extreme version of individuality, embodied in the title of one of her books The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand erroneously embraces “[a]n almost universal human trait…the ability to discount the endless contributions of others to our thinking process, while magnifying our own ‘original’ thinking beyond all measure. This is the basis of the American mythos of the ‘Self-made man…”

Rand’s extreme elevation of the virtue of selfishness has no place for altruism at all, at all.  According to Rand, Williams notes, “[o]nly when this awful, ridiculous moral notion of self-sacrifice and altruism is rejected will the thinkers/creators/Atlases be free to create. Until then, Galt [one of Rand’s heros in Atlas Shrugged] says, they’re out.” 

On the contrary, “Man is a SOCIAL animal,” Williams writes, “but Ayn Rand and her adherents insanely reject this fundamental truth. As a result, while a few have enriched themselves, our society is falling apart, and our infrastructure is rotting.” Thus Rand’s work provides the perfect theoretical basis for the current extreme view of individualism supported by ‘tea-party’ advocates, ‘libertarian’ think tanks, and the right-wing Republicans, among others. An example of the latter is former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, a staunch right-wing Catholic, who during the campaign attempted to distance himself from the staunch atheist, Rand, he once admired and touted. But despite his new found love for St. Thomas Aquinas, Ryan still seems to be pushing the virtue of selfishness. Not very christian according to some christian’s measures, but then again, as Williams points out, “nobody ever went broke providing millionaires with a rationalization for the morality of greed.” At the moment, Congressman Ryan seems to be doing quite well. 

The book's title, Ayn Nation Under God, might have been better titled Ayn Nation Under Galt, but then again maybe Hart Williams’ title is appropriate if we accept Albert Ellis's affirmative answer to the question that was also the title of his book critiquing Rand, "Is Objectivism A Religion?" At any rate, Hart Williams' book provides a remarkably non-aristotelian look at what is unfortunately becoming (at least to me) Ayn Nation Under Rand. If you want to understand a great deal more about the present, polarized, aristotelian orientation that dominates the political climate in the U.S. you can't do better than read Hart William's book. My summary and quotes don’t do justice to his writing. He tenders his conclusions with a large portion of supporting detail served with verve and wit in an extremely inexpensive book. All the more reason to get: Ayn Nation Under God