Sunday, June 29, 2014

Comment on *Atlas Shrugged*

This isn't a thorough review. Rather, it's a reply to a post about the book on the Kinky Intellectuals' Book Club group at

I had mixed feelings when I read the book. On one hand, its valorization of individuality has understandable appeal for anyone who's been conditioned to accept a coercive and inauthentic "altruism" that says thinking and caring for yourself are "selfish." (I call this inauthentic because it results in behavior motivated by guilt or fear of criticism, rather than an actual desire to help others.) The problem is that it falsely implies that that's the only kind of altruism there is, and uses this false dichotomy to justify an equally unbalanced sort of egoism. It thereby misses the point that humans, by our social nature, can only realize our individuality through sociality, just as surely as we can only really contribute socially by being individuals. It then conflates general values like rationality and independent thinking with the historically contingent social system of capitalism.

There is irony in the fact that, on account of insistence on such faulty logic, and notwithstanding all the lip service Rand gave to independent thinking, she actually brooked none in her own personal circle, which has often been likened to a cult. And this problem didn't end with Rand's death. In fact, some groups that pay homage to her seem to engage in worse forms of psychological manipulation than any she practiced herself -- in particular, the practice of "de-FOOing," or cutting off one's family of origin, as promoted at the website you linked to. Because this is encouraged in followers who are mostly college or even high school-age, and don't yet have extensive social networks, it's a very effective way of bringing them under Stefan Molyneux's control.

As a survivor of a different cultic group, I have met (through the International Cultic Studies Association, people who were cut off by their children for years at Molyneux's instigation. Fortunately, some have broken free of his influence and reunited with their parents.

If you want to explore anarchocapitalist ideas, check out, where many ex-FDR and other libertarian people congregate online. These ideas aren't exactly my cup of tea -- I'm more of a libertarian socialist myself, a la Rosa Luxemburg or Noam Chomsky. But debating ideology with you is less urgent to me than ensuring you can explore the ideas that interest you in a way that won't endanger you psychologically through processes of undue influence. Not to mention that the more democratic atmosphere at the non-FDR site will let you explore all of these ideas, and not just those that are amenable to Molyneux.

As a side note, I thought parts of *Atlas Shrugged* were, in literary terms, atrociously repetitive. I felt that if I had a nickel for every time I read "the face without pain or fear or guilt," I'd be wealthy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mental Health First Aid: A Good Start, but Still Has Some Kinks

I posted the following comment on the Facebook page for the city's Mental Health First Aid training program ( after a class last Saturday:

I took the first half of an adult MHFA training today. In most respects it was very good, especially the emphasis on being non-judgmental. But one part troubled me, precisely because it wasn't consistent with that principle. The problem was with an "alphabet" exercise in which people were invited to volunteer possible signs of mental illness starting with different letters, and the instructor wrote them down on a whiteboard. Because she subsequently made no reference to the resulting list -- and especially because she sometimes appeared to question them before writing them down -- this gave the appearance of an endorsement of items in the list. This was troubling with respect to a couple words: "kinky" and "unusual." These are often associated with pejorative connotations, and to list them as signs of mental illness helps to perpetuate prejudice against those perceived as "unusual" or "kinky." But even when I pointed out to the instructor the presently total lack of civil rights protections for kinky people, she couldn't acknowledge the point, apparently blinded by her own defensiveness. Instead she initially tried to claim that "kinky" and "sex" are synonyms. (They're not even the same part of speech! And in any case the main symptom she quoted from a Web page, loss of libido, has nothing to do with what most people mean by kinky.) When that failed, she claimed the word's appearance on the list didn't imply endorsement. That would be a fair point if she'd told the class that -- but she never did. So what was the point of the exercise? At *best* it's a waste of time since it isn't being used as a teachable moment when people's suggested signs are incorrect. But at worst, as in this case, it's actually helping perpetuate a stigma that hurts people -- and may sometimes make them mentally ill.

Study Finds More Suicides Under Conservative Rule


Thursday, June 19, 2014

When People Act Like You're Twelve

One of the things I find most irritating is when people talk to me as if I've never thought about something, even when it ought to be obvious that I probably have.

An example occurred last night. I'd come to a symposium on Labor and Climate Justice, and people were still signing in and getting noshies before settling down for the event (which itself was very good, by the way). So I see Elizabeth Fattah for the first time in years because, as she explains, she's in California now. Elizabeth is with The Greens/Green Party USA, which some may describe as the "fundi" wing of the Green movement.

When I mention that this event may provide an opportunity to get some signatures to put Paul Glover on the ballot as the Green Party of Pennsylvania's candidate for Governor, she dismissively says she doesn't know why we waste our time on this "lost cause." She explains that we should boycott elections because "they only give the system legitimacy" and suggests we follow the example of those who boycotted the election in Egypt.

Now, I know this point of view exists. But what makes her think that merely repeating it to me is going to change my thinking? I may be younger than her, but she's known me since the Nineties, and surely realizes that I've had time to think about such questions. In this context, it's even more absurd that she mentions the recent Egyptian election. Does she have any evidence that those who boycotted it actually accomplished anything in terms of weakening the regime? It's doubtful that they even made inroads into its legitimacy for anyone but themselves, considering the enthusiasm with which many voted for the winner. So how on Earth does she think citing this example is going to persuade me?

In this case, of course, it has a lot to do with the sectarian style of politics, in which self-righteousness (especially in the eyes of fellow group members) is more important than measurably accomplishing anything. But it can occur in other contexts too.  Several years ago I had occasion to mention to someone I encountered in a food court that I'm a socialist (the conversation may have been started by some button I was wearing). His reaction was to inform me that that idea had failed and was discredited. This was the mid-Nineties. Did he *really* think I had never heard that opinion before? It had only been drummed into my head a thousand times by the mainstream media and politicians. Yet he apparently thought he was the one who was going to enlighten me to this "truth."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Your Brain on Lovecraft

This is Lovecraft

This is your brain on Lovecraft

Any questions?

Monday, June 09, 2014

"To the Revolution of the World"

Yesterday the American Humanist Association, meeting in Philadelphia, and the local Freethought Society held an event on Independence Mall commemorating the 20th anniversary of the City's first proclaiming Thomas Paine Day.

One of the interesting things I learned is that Paine's favorite toast was, "To the revolution of the world." This has a familiar ring to those of us schooled in the concept of "the world revolution" as an ongoing process. And the same speaker confirmed the idea that it' s ongoing, describing events in places like Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square, and the Maidan as continuing Paine's revolutionary-democratic legacy.

Although I suspect most of those attending the Happy Hour afterwards aren't yet revolutionaries in the way Paine was, it was gratifying that they all joined in when Stephen Gulick, who'd spoken as his admirer as well as an impersonator, raised this same toast.

To the revolution of the world!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Some Surprising Oversights by Snopes

I just heard today about an urban legend which I couldn't find on -- rather surprisingly, since it turns out it' s nearly fifty years old, including twenty online. While I was at it, I also filled them in on another rumor, over a decade old, that I encountered a couple years ago. Below are links to articles about both.

"Willie Lynch letter":

"Nelson Mandela's first memo to Thomas Friedman":

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

One of Those Times You May Feel Like Kicking Yourself

Ever had a sudden insight, and then found yourself wondering why it took you so long? This morning something made me recall a local magazine that was around briefly about eleven years ago. I saw it at bdsm events, and it was focused on the bdsm scene.

What puzzled me was its title: ObZine. What did the letters OB have to do with bdsm? It was a mystery.

When I recalled it today I immediately  realized that it was a pun on "obscene." In retrospect this seems obvious. So why hadn't I thought of that before?

I have an idea why. Because it was a kink publication found in kink settings, I thought of it exclusively in that connection. This was probably accentuated by its being the first bdsm magazine I'd seen, whereas vanilla erotic publications were already familiar. So, when I wondered about its title, I was focused exclusively on its bdsm character, and didn't think to "pull back" and view it more broadly as a publication that was erotic and therefore, in some people's lights, "obscene." It's a good illustration of the power of a "mental set."

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Penn Summer Course: Science and Fiction

A Summer Session course is coming up at Penn which may interest many people, titled Science and Fiction. A description and the website for registration follow.

Course Description: 

This class will consider the science fiction novel and story as developing genres. We will read work on the origins of the form, where science blurs with the fantastic. We will consider the alien as trope, both benevolent and ferocious, as well as science as practiced by humans itself escaping our control. We will read writers such as H. G. Wells, Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clark, Kim Stanley Robinson and others from a number of cultures beyond the U.S.  We will also read examples of science fiction used as a device to imagine other ways of human being, embodiment, sexuality, and gender such as in the work of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and Ursula Le Guin. In addition, we will study the way the genre allows us to imagine and work through fears and new ideas about ourselves. Students will gain a sense of the development of the literary genre and narrative as well as exposure to the mutant discourse that strains of scientific forecasting and less linear narrative create. Students will complete assignments including two short papers and will contribute to classroom discussion. Please feel free to email the instructor with any questions you may have about the course: