Smother the Passion!

 Posted by on 27 February 2004 at 6:20 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 272004

As the furor and excitement over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has grown to a fevered pitch in the past few weeks, I’ve grown increasingly worried that the film will spark a religious revival in which masses of nominal Christians rediscover their faith. Given the opening numbers and the enthusiastic response in some quarters, I’m now even more concerned. (I haven’t seen the film yet… and I’m somewhat reluctant to see it in the theater. Then again, it might be an interesting experience.) In any case, I hope to see some hard-hitting Objectivist commentary on the subject soon.

Andrew Sullivan has some fascinating comments on the film from his own thoughtfully Catholic perspective, particularly the ways in which it departs from the Gospels. He writes:

Let’s take a few clear examples. The Gospels do not tell us that the jailers of the High Priests beat Jesus to a pulp before he was even delivered to the Romans, or that he was thrown in chains over a prison wall, almost garrotting him. That’s Gibson’s sadistic embellishment – so that Jesus already has one eye shut from bruises before he is even tried. The Gospels do not say that the flogging of Jesus was so extreme and out of control that a centurion had to stop it because it had gone beyond any of the usual bounds of Roman punishment. That again is Gibson’s invention. In the crucifixion scene, the Gospels do not say that in hoisting the cross, it fell down by accident so that Jesus was pinned headfirst between the cross and the earth, his crown of thorns thrust even deeper into his skull. Again, that’s Gibson’s interpolation. It’s as if Gibson’s saying that being crucified isn’t bad enough – you’ve got be crushed face down by timber first if you are going to save all mankind.

I repeat that there is something deeply disturbed about this film. Its extreme and un-Biblical fascination with human torture reflects, to my mind, not devotion to the message of the Cross but a kind of psycho-sexual obsession with extreme violence that Gibson has indulged in many of his other movies and is now trying to insinuate into Christianity itself. The film could have shown suffering and cruelty much differently. It could have led us into the profound psychological pain that Jesus and his mother and disciples must have endured by giving us some human context to empathize with them; it could have prompted the viewer to use his or her own imagination to fill in the gaps of terror, as all great art does; it could have done much more by showing us much less. But the extremity is Gibson’s obvious point. I can understand why traditionalist Catholics might be grateful that there is some Hollywood representation of their faith. But they shouldn’t let their gratitude blind them to the psychotic vision of this disturbed director – and the deeper, creepier, heterodox theology that he is trying to espouse.

From what I have seen, the most enthusiastic responses to the film seem to be coming from evangelical Christians. I wonder if Catholics are generally more circumspect.

Update: Reginald Firehammer comments on the film here and here. I was disappointed with Scott Holleran’s commentary, particularly this bit:

A Mel Gibson movie about pain as man’s highest purpose is practically redundant; pain is at the core of the bloody Braveheart, the gruesome The Patriot, the tortured Mad Max and nearly every picture Gibson has made. His movies — Ransom, ­ Conspiracy, ­ Lethal Weapon ­ show that torment is his stock in trade.

I can’t speak for all the movies cited, but the claim that pain is central to Braveheart and The Patriot strikes me as very odd. Like all good fiction, the plot of both movies involves internal and external conflicts. Both protray deep and profound loss. Both movies are bloody in parts, as they concern war. But pain “at the core”? I don’t see that at all. (Full disclosure: Although I enjoyed Braveheart, it struck me as rather too preachy. The Patriot is without a doubt one of my favorite movies.)

A Public Statement

 Posted by on 20 February 2004 at 1:39 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 202004

As many of you know, for the past ten years, I have actively been involved with and supportive of The Objectivist Center, formerly the Institute for Objectivist Studies. In that time, I attended every Summer Seminar. I recommended IOS/TOC to countless people. Early on, I often defended the ideas in Truth and Toleration in online debate and discussion. More recently, I lectured three times on ethics and twice gave the introductory course on Objectivism at the Summer Seminar. As part of my return to academic philosophy, I presented scholarly papers at the last two Advanced Seminars. My husband and I were also sponsors of TOC for many years.

With much sadness, I recently brought this era of my life to a close. A few days ago, I sent David Kelley a letter informing him that, due to a variety of significant practical and philosophical objections to TOC’s basic approach to Objectivism, I could no longer support the Center.

For the sake of brevity, that letter did not delve into the details of my reasons for departure, but merely outlined the central points. This public statement is very much the same, as it is largely drawn from that letter. In a few weeks, I will be circulating a much longer, more thorough examination of the issues touched upon below.

As some of you know, I’ve been unhappy with TOC as both a student and sponsor for over a year. My discontent took root essentially because TOC failed to live up to my basic expectations as a graduate student committed to contributing quality scholarly work on Objectivism. I wanted and needed to understand Objectivism at a much deeper level, yet I found little help at TOC, not even a suggested curriculum of self-study. I wanted and needed to be encouraged, pushed, and challenged in my work from a strongly Objectivist perspective, but that rarely happened, not even in presenting papers at the Advanced Seminar. In my two conversations with David Kelley on the subject, he did not seem particularly interested in or committed to assisting developing Objectivist scholars in any substantial way.

So I realized that I would have to pull myself up by my philosophical bootstraps through an intensive solo study of the full Objectivist corpus. My preliminary work over the past year made my understanding of Objectivism more thorough, my approach to the philosophy more serious, and my commitment more strong. I also grew correspondingly aware of and frustrated by the weak, tepid, and not particularly Objectivist scholarly atmosphere of TOC. The uncharitable, uninformed, and unresearched interpretations and criticisms of Objectivism heard far too often from TOC students became increasingly disturbing — and David Kelley’s longstanding silent tolerance of such baffling. I wondered why he never demanded or even encouraged better from us students, particularly since such simple leadership could have made a tremendous difference to so many, myself included.

In light of my pressing concerns about TOC’s academic work, I began to wonder about the state of TOC’s push for cultural change. At that time, I already knew that little had been accomplished in the years since the change of name and mission, including in the flush years of the dot-com boom. No new books were published. Media appearances were relatively rare. The Atlas Society closed down for lack of interest. The circulation of and attention to the few TOC articles and op-eds published was limited. The 1998 Stossel “Greed” special was trotted out time and again for fundraising purposes. (Sadly, all of that still holds true today.) However, I had only occasionally perused TOC’s cultural commentaries, as I often found what I did read to be uninteresting and superficial. So over Christmas break, I surveyed a host of previously-neglected op-eds and Navigator articles to attempt to gauge their quality. All too often, I was dismayed by the arguments offered and ideas advocated in these writings. A few examples, all from TOC staff, are worth briefly mentioning:

  • Russ La Valle’s February 2000 review of The Art of Fiction is repeatedly hostile towards and denigrating of Ayn Rand, failing even basic standards of charitable interpretation and context-keeping. To treat a philosophic opponent in such a fashion would be bad enough, but to do so to the originator of Objectivism in the magazine of “The Objectivist Center” is mind-boggling.
  • Tim Richmond’s defense of the group recitation of the modern “under God” Pledge of Allegiance in government schools in his July 2002 op-ed “One Nation Under ?” does not merely offer bad arguments; it bears no discernable relationship to Objectivism, either in substance or method. For example, the critical fact that such constitutional conflicts over religion are only possible only within the context of government control over education is ignored.
  • In David Kelley’s November 2003 Navigator essay “The Party of Modernity,” Ayn Rand is presented as just another defender of modernist values, as simply “the most articulate” of the bunch. (Surely, Ayn Rand’s writing style is not the only reason for her superiority over other modernists like Milton Friedman and John Searle!) More disturbingly, the closing paragraph of that article implies a pragmatic and superficial approach to political advocacy in which “allies and converts” to the cause of freedom need not be philosophically grounded in the modernist worldview.
  • Ed Hudgins’ Christmas 2003 op-ed “The Human Spirit of Christmas” repeatedly appeals to Christian ideas in such a way that a person unfamiliar with Objectivism would never guess that the philosophy is atheistic, let alone that it wholly rejects the Christian moral ideal. The basic approach to ideas in the op-ed is not only misleading and condescending, but also contrary to the Objectivist rejection of appeasement.

    My survey of these and other articles showed me that TOC’s vision of and approach to Objectivism is fundamentally at odds with mine. Although I’ve never been directly involved with TOC’s cultural activism, my very public involvement with and support of TOC over the years connects me to it, much to my all-too-frequent embarrassment and dismay.

    In order to ferret out any underlying philosophical causes of these systemic problems at TOC, I also re-read the founding document of TOC, David Kelley’s Truth and Toleration, for the first time in 10 years. I was surprised to find myself in strong disagreement with critical elements of the arguments on almost every issue: moral judgment, tolerance, sanction, and Objectivism as an open system. None of my disagreements are minor. All seem to bear upon TOC’s disturbing trajectory over the years. But I regard the last, that Objectivism is an “open system,” as the most widely misunderstood, deeply flawed, and practically dangerous of the lot — and as the basic source of my own unhappiness at TOC.

    In the open system view, Objectivism is only limited by the principles Kelley cites as fundamental to the system. All the rest may be debated, refined, altered, reorganized, and even outright rejected within the bounds of Objectivism so long as a person “defends his view by reference to the basic principles” (T&T 69). The open system thus minimizes the importance of the wide range of insights, applications, principles, methods, arguments, and logical connections found in the full and rich system of philosophy developed by Ayn Rand. It downplays the necessity of a deep and thorough study of that system, promotes casual and superficial criticisms of it, and trivializes Rand’s tremendous philosophic achievement. Such is why I do not regard the persistent problems at TOC as fundamentally due to poor management, insufficient funds, meager talent pool, or whatnot. Instead, I see them as the natural, practical consequences of TOC’s view of Objectivism as an open system.

    Some of you may wonder why I am disassociating myself from TOC in such a public fashion, rather than merely drifting away in private discontent like so many others over the years. One reason is that my disagreements are not merely practical, but also deeply philosophical. Also, my involvement with and support of TOC over the years has been so public that a similarly public departure is warranted for the sake of clarity. And finally, since my philosophical life is lived very openly through my blog and web site, it would be very strange not to mention and explain a change of this magnitude.

    For many years now, my relationship with TOC has largely been sustained by Will Thomas’ enthusiastic interest in and steadfast support of my work in philosophy. I would have drifted away from TOC years ago were it not for him. Sadly, my conflicts with TOC now go beyond even his capacity to mend. For these and other reasons, I am pained by the end of my ten year relationship with IOS/TOC. However, my decision was not undertaken quickly, easily, or lightly, but rather painfully determined to be the only right course of action after many months of hard deliberation. That decision was made almost two months ago. My letter to David Kelley made it official. This public statement makes it known.

    Diana Mertz Hsieh
    20 February 2004

Some Good News

 Posted by on 18 February 2004 at 9:12 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 182004

Last night, I received some delightful news from the graduate advisor of the philosophy department at Boulder: I’ve moved up the philosophical food chain, from M.A. student to Ph.D student.


A Reading List

 Posted by on 18 February 2004 at 4:54 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 182004

I just found a fairly interesting and helpful reading list of “approximately 500 books covering the essentials of an education in the sciences and arts” at It’s from an ARI-Objectivist perspective, so some good sources seem to be absent. However, it does include various books recommended by Objectivists in various lectures, such as the logic texts and histories of philosophy recommended by Peikoff, which is quite helpful.

Transsexuals on Sexism of All Stripes

 Posted by on 16 February 2004 at 9:27 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 162004

I never would have thought of asking transsexuals about the differences in their treatment by others as men versus as women. But these comments, sent to OurBlogFatherWhoArtInHeaven, were really fascinating.

In response to your wondering about the experiences of transsexuals and the treatment we’ve experienced living as each sex, I thought I’d quickly share some of mine. In essence, it’s a very mixed bag either way. By way of background, I’m 30 years old, a health insurance actuary, politically centrist with strong libertarian sympathies, and thoroughly bourgeoise. I changed sexes, from male to female, five years ago, and live in San Francisco. Of course, I’m excluding the approximately two years in which I was obviously a transsexual and was treated as such from my comments below, which reflect only my subjective experience.

On the “men have it worse” side:

- I agree with the commenter of Jarvis’s. Since I’ve changed, I seem to represent much less of a potential threat to people, both male and female, and people trust me more easily. The air of suspicion really was not noticeable until it was gone, as is the case for many of these issues.

- People are generally nicer and more considerate of me now, and seem to be much more sparing of my feelings, even to the point of telling obvious lies. This is in addition to the obvious typical male chivalry things like opening doors and the like, which, I’m happy to report, is still quite common even in San Francisco. People will actually go out of their way to be gratuitously kind, which was certainly not the case beforehand.

- People are far, far less likely to accuse, or (as far as I can tell) believe in actual wrongdoing or malfeasance on my part now. The flip side of this, as a I mention below, is a strongly increased tendency to assume that I’m incompetent.

On the “women have it worse” side:

- As I said above, people’s apparent estimation of my intelligence has dropped significantly, despite the fact that I’m quite certain the quality and coherence of my thoughts (not to mention my professional qualifications!) have improved greatly since transition. This isn’t total and complete; if I have an absolute knock-down argument, people will eventually believe it, but only after much expenditure of effort on my part. If I *don’t* have a knock-down argument, people are far less likely to trust my intelligence and judgement than they had been. This tendency is rather uneven; I’ve noticed it most strongly in older people (over, say, 50), and in certain religious groups (the usual suspects:
conservative Christians and Muslims of all stripes).

- While normal citizens now view me as less of a threat, and therefore as a better person, it is true that criminals now also view me as less of a threat, and consequently, as a better target. I’ve managed to stay out of trouble in this regard, but it’s much more of a concern these days.

- When I am genuinely angry or upset about something, or even when I disagree with a colleague on a factual or logical point, there is a far greater tendency among the general populace to attribute it to some one-off hormonal effect, or to it being “that time of the month.” Since, as a transsexual, I do not menstruate, I find this latter belief extremely amusing, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Overall, I’m much (much!) happier as a woman, but I think that has little to nothing do with a fundamental societal preference for one over the other and everything to do with the fact that I’m a male-to-female transsexual. I can’t really say that either men or women have an overwhelming advantage in societal treatment these days, at least not that I’ve noticed.

Sheesh, based on these considerations alone, I’d definitely rather be a man. However, I don’t think Paul is all that interested in switching teams. ;-)

A Disgusting Survey

 Posted by on 11 February 2004 at 7:46 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 112004

The explanations offered for the variations in disgust response at the end of this survey were very interesting… and seemed quite reasonable. But wow, a few of the survey images were really quite revolting.

Fake Smiles

 Posted by on 8 February 2004 at 9:08 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 082004

Can you tell fake smiles from real smiles? I scored 18 out of 20 on the BBC test. Let’s just say that Paul didn’t do so well. (Okay, I confess that’s not quite fair. But it is technically true, as he only got 16 of 20 correct.)

I knew something of Paul Ekman’s research on facial expressions, so I’m not all that surprised by my high score. Nonetheless, the right answers seemed pretty obvious to me in most cases, simply based upon the “intensity” of the smile. (I don’t doubt that such intensity is the product of different muscles being employed in fake versus real smiles, as Ekman’s research shows.) So I wonder what the average score is.

An Accidental Find

 Posted by on 8 February 2004 at 8:44 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 082004

I recently found this NFL Insider article on New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. (It doesn’t have a date on it, but it seems to be from 2002.) It’s this bit about Ayn Rand which is so interesting to me:

If you assume Vinatieri’s reading list begins and ends at Field & Stream, guess again. His favorite book is Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. It is an epic novel about a society in mysterious decline, and about the death and rebirth of the human spirit. The book profoundly influenced Vinatieri’s feelings about the importance of pride in the work place.

“The book’s about commitment,” he says. “Whatever you do and whatever you’re going to put your name on, whatever you’re going to sign as your work, do it to be proud of what you’re doing. Do it the best you can and you’ll never be disappointed. You’ll never have to say, ‘What if I had tried a little harder?’”

Such passion for perfection helps explain Mr. Ice-in-His-Veins’ occasional meltdowns. You don’t want to be near him on the day that a product he just purchased fails to operate. Or worse, a do-it-yourself assembly project with parts missing.

“Or when you’re at the airport and your flight is delayed with no explanation,” he says. “Or when your flight’s been canceled. Or when they lose your luggage.”

Some people can roll with these everyday annoyances. Vinatieri cannot. To him, they are an indication that someone didn’t put enough pride in his work.

“With our job, everything is done professionally,” he says. “Our organization and our coaches expect us to do everything to the best of our ability. And I’m a little bit of a perfectionist in most everything that I do. So when other people don’t use the same effort, it makes me angry. I want other people to take just as much pride in what they do, no matter what that is.”

Valerie has lost count of the number of times she has seen her husband shake his head and declare, with absolute indignation, “I would never run my business this way!” He knows there are no shortcuts to success, a lesson he learned when he spent summers working on a South Dakota farm owned by his grandfather and uncle.

“I’d be there for three or four weeks, helping them plant and plow and vaccinate cattle,” Vinatieri recalls. “It was the hardest month of the year I would spend anywhere. Up at 5 a.m., go to bed at midnight. My uncle would even work later than that and still get up earlier. Even if it rained, you couldn’t get out of work because that was a time to fix a fence. There was always something to do.”

That hasn’t changed. Most kickers spend practice sessions watching and waiting for the special-teams period.

“I go in there and lift weights and run with everybody,” Vinatieri says. “Sure, making big kicks to help the team win definitely helps your status on the team. But I want everybody to know that I care about the team as much as anybody.”

That’s pretty cool. If only I’d read the article before the Super Bowl, I’d have rooted for New England, despite their defeat of my beloved Colts. But obviously Vinatieri did just fine without my few extra cheers from hundreds of miles away.

The Problem of Grade Inflation

 Posted by on 7 February 2004 at 11:45 am  Uncategorized
Feb 072004

I’ve long known that grade inflation is a serious problem at American universities, so the hard data on this page was quite interesting. It shows an increase of .15 in 10 years in average student GPA. Frankly, I wonder about the trends over the past 50 years, as I doubt that the early 1990s is a good baseline.

Of course, the problem of grade inflation isn’t the only or largest problem. The real issue is that institutional education is not nearly as demanding, comprehensive, focused, and integrated as it ought to be. Students are put through the motions of education without actually learning as much, as deeply, or as broadly as they ought to. For the dedicated learner, the only solution to the gross inadequacy of institutional education is self-education… but then what’s the point of the institutional education at all? Frankly, I’m ready to start a movement for homeschooling in undergraduate and graduate education.

On the flip side, we might ask: What is a professor (or teacher) to do? Obviously, fighting for a more demanding curriculum and stricter standards throughout the institution could be a worthwhile goal, if it weren’t so likely to be wholly ineffective. In large classes, grading on a curve may well be a good option to prevent grade inflation. (However, that might only increase the incentive to make the classes easier.) And really, how much can any educator (or even institution) do when the students coming to them are so completely undereducated? (A friend of mine teaching introductory philosophy tells me that students often can’t even write vaguely coherent “stream of consciousness” essays. That indicates something quite horrible about the quality of their thinking.) Merely instituting stricter standards might not be all that helpful to students who have suffered from years of bad education. Yet accommodating the ignorance of incoming students (e.g. by accepting them and then placing them in remedial courses) merely perpetuates the problem.

The necessary impetus for change is unlikely to come from universities, as backing up their demands would require a willingness to dramatically decrease enrollment. Change must start with primary and secondary education, then trickle down to the universities. Homeschooling, school choice, vouchers, objective graduation requirements, and so on surely make a difference, but only for a small number of individual students. Until the public school system is junked, substantial change seems beyond reach.


 Posted by on 5 February 2004 at 7:47 pm  Uncategorized
Feb 052004

Will Wilkinson pointed me to this excellent review of Charles Murray’s new book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. I had been thinking of ordering it, and the review sealed the deal. It promises to be a fascinating study of the movers and shakers of human culture.

I also ordered a number of books on communism and the Soviet Union, as I’ve been wanting to read more about that terrible history for some time. I must admit, I went a bit overboard:

  • Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
  • Communism: A History by Richard Pipes
  • The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stephane Courtois, et al
  • The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956 by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
  • In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
  • Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
  • The Great Terror: A Reassessment by Robert Conquest

    I even branched out for a bit of Chinese communism with Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. I’ve wanted to read her book for years now, ever since she came to speak at my high school. I remember the incongruity of her tough-as-nails spirit inside the body of a petite, elderly, almost frail Chinese woman.

    On a lighter note, I ordered the DVDs of the two Jackie Chan / Owen Wilson movies, Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. I’m generally not much of a fan of comedies, but I love Jackie Chan’s wholesome comedic style and beautiful stunt work, particularly when paired with Owen Wilson as the goofy, loveable, and thoroughly modern rogue. (I also really liked Owen Wilson in his much more serious role in Behind Enemy Lines. Go figure.)

    Ah, what would I ever do without Amazon?!?

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