Category Archives: The Book I Read

A Tendency to Cooperate

Teamwork is mankind's greatest achievement

Ayn Rand believed that people could become self-reliant by elevating their own interests above all else; as the Ayn Rand Institute’s web site says, she “wrote volumes urging people to be selfish.” As a result, she opposed religious and political controls that could hinder individuals from pursuing their personal goals. Certainly, there’s something to be said for having a society of people who are free to achieve their goals, right?

But when Rand’s followers extol her promotion of personal liberty, they fail to recognize or admit that individualism—or objectivism, as she preferred to call it—as a guiding principle:

  1. Doesn’t work in practice, and
  2. Is not the highest expression of mankind.

After reading Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead,” I came across Randall Munroe’s comic that pretty much depicted my impression. He said:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge a**hole to everyone.'”

And there are concrete examples of her philosophy’s failure in practice and as a description of what drives human achievement.

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert has been largely guided by Rand’s ideas in his leadership of the company:

“Lampert broke the company into over 30 individual units, each with its own management, and each measured separately for profit and loss. Acting in their individual self-interest, they would be forced to compete with each other and thereby generate higher profits…What actually happened is that units began to behave something like the cutthroat city-states of Italy around the time Machiavelli was penning his guide to rule-by-selfishness. As Mina Kimes has reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, they went to war with each other.”

A decade into Lampert’s tenure, Business Insider said, “the 124-year-old retailer is imploding.”

Rand said, “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.” She believed that teamwork was for savages.

But not only have humans always had a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, in fact, it may be “that it is our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart [from other human-like species]. From language and culture to war and love, our most distinctively human behaviours all have a social element.” Teamwork is mankind’s greatest achievement.

Oftentimes, Rand’s self-interested fans end up simply sounding like children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

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What Might This Be?

In the 1950s, the Rorschach inkblot test was “as closely identified with the clinical psychologist as the stethoscope is with the physician.” Since their publication in Psychodiagnostics, in 1921, Hermann Rorschach’s ten inkblots have not only been used as a military, educational, corporate, legal and anthropological tool, but also:

In his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls describes the progression that led from Rorschach’s visual work with a particular patient—”a wall painter with artistic ambitions” for whom the existing techniques of talk therapy, dream interpretation, and word association were ineffective—to the development of his famous test and the reasons it has endured for so long.

In the early twentieth century, klecksography, the art of making images from inkblots, was not only a popular parlor game—along with “readings” of patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes and candle wax drippings—but also a method used by psychologists to measure the extent of people’s imagination, particularly children.

Rorschach—who prior to becoming a psychologist was an artist—began to show people the inkblots he created himself “in connection with research on the nature of perception, not the measuring of imagination; he was…interested in what people saw, and how, not just how much.”

Searls ultimately insists that the resilience and power of Rorschach’s unique “visual psychology” stemmed from the fact that “we evolved to be visual” and therefore, “seeing runs deeper than talking.” The visual nature of Rorschach’s test—movement, color, form—was the key that rescued it from relativist uncertainty.

“Rorschach’s fundamental insight was a visual version of Jung’s types: we all see the world in different ways. But the fact that it’s visual makes all the difference. Understanding the real inkblots and their specific visual qualities gives us a way to move beyond the relativism, at least in principle. It’s not all arbitrary: there’s something truly there that we’re all seeing in our own way. Rorschach’s insight can stand without forcing us to deny the existence of valid judgments, Truth with a capital T.”

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The Good Nurses

At first reflection, Charles Graeber’s 2013 book, The Good Nurse, might provoke dread in anyone who thinks they or their loved ones will depend at some time on the work of health care professionals. But my further thoughts about the story led me to affirm that, while anyone in Charles Cullen’s position could do what he did—kill dozens (maybe hundreds) of patients with random overdoses in order to satisfy his need for control—none of the nearly three million nurses currently working in the US has.

If I didn’t know any nurses and had never been a recipient of their care, Cullen’s chilling work might cause me to fear nurses or hospitals in general. But in the last few years I have depended on the care of some excellent nurses, and I currently hang around a lot of them as a volunteer. My relationship with genuinely good nurses protects me from such an irrational fear.

Indeed, irrational fears are often enabled by a lack of familiarity with their object:

One of the most common abuses of power is generating irrational fear based on hate and mistrust. But we can choose not to be controlled and limited by irrational fears and resist the appeals to hate by taking control and overcoming those fears.

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Understanding History

Historian and columnist T.R. Fehrenbach said in his book, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, “History is too often revised to match contemporary views. It has been said that each generation must rewrite history in order to understand it. The opposite is true. Moderns revise history to make it palatable, not to understand it. Those who edit ‘history’ to popular taste each decade will never understand the past—neither the horrors nor glories of which the human race is equally capable—and for that reason, they will fail to understand themselves.”

Indeed, we must understand history in order to perform the necessary process of rewriting it. News has been properly characterized as “the first rough draft of history,” and more formal, considered formats must involve rewriting. The problems Fehrenbach describes arise with the object and intent of many revisions.

His blanket accusation that “moderns” are motivated to revise by a desire to serve their own ends and to protect an audience they deem lacking in discernment may have been prompted by the most flagrant example of this type of revision, which is his own state’s school board. While they commit a heinous crime, born of arrogance and paranoia, such groups and individuals are more appropriately described as bizarre anachronisms than “moderns.”

Truly modern scholars understand more than ever that history is improved by filling gaps, restoring original contexts and exploring interrelationships between events. At one time, too much weight was given to established portrayals by believing and teaching that there was only one way for history to be understood. Michael Conway insisted in The Atlantic that “rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”

Much of history in the Western world was written by white men who believed that the universe—Galileo and Copernicus notwithstanding—revolved around them, and responsible and enlightened revision can only provide an improved history that will, indeed, help us better understand ourselves.

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The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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Reason Alone is Sufficient

Astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big fan of Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century novel, Gulliver’s Travels. He told The New York Times that it’s his favorite novel of all time, and he regularly includes it among books he recommends to both adults and children.

Swift’s satire on human nature aligns with Tyson’s own devotion to reason and his caustic view of the seeming disdain many people have for it.

“I call people’s attention to Part IV [A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms],” Tyson said, “in which Gulliver meets a community of intelligent, logical horses. Their debates are short. Their decision-making is efficient. Their governance is rational. Their society is a model of function and performance. Meanwhile, running hairy, smelly, and naked in the woods are the Yahoos—the first appearance of that word. They are savage and irrational creatures. And they look just like humans.”

The reaction of one of the Houyhnhnms to Gulliver’s description of English society reads like many of Tyson’s descriptions of contemporary society:

“He said ‘he had been very seriously considering my whole story, as far as it related both to myself and my country; that he looked upon us as a sort of animals, to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen…that we disarmed ourselves of the few abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original wants, and seemed to spend our whole lives in vain endeavors to supply them by our own inventions…that our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature.'”

Indeed, Gulliver relates:

“It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either. So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness, in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms. In the like manner, when I used to explain to him our several systems of natural philosophy, he would laugh, ‘that a creature pretending to reason, should value itself upon the knowledge of other people’s conjectures, and in things where that knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no use.'”

Tyson insists that “reading this novel is fun, on the cynical side” because, he says, it’s “a reminder that, most of the time, humans are yahoos.”

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