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Archive for March, 2015


with 5 comments

I’m coming off a week-end of sheer outraged piss off, which is not really normal for me most of the time, and probably isn’t good for me.

The occasion was the absolute deluge of FB posts about the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in Indiana.  By and large, these posts were by people who had not read the act in question, which is how I got declaration after declaration about how the act would allow EMTs to refuse to treat gay patients and Christian restaurant owners to refuse to serve gay people.

In the way, though, the people who had not read the thing were less disturbing than the people who had, because those people quite obviously had no idea what they were looking at.

So, if you don’t know the history, let me outline it briefly.

The original RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993 under bipartisan auspices (Chuck Schumer was one of the sponsors) and signed by President Clinton.  This happened because of a SCOTUS case in which the justices upheld the conviction under federal drug laws of a Native American who was using peyote in a religious ritual.  Instead of applying the USUAL standard for deciding such cases–the government must prove any law that burdens the free practice of religion addresses a compelling government interest and is the least burdensome way to effect that interest–the Court decided the drug war trumped the Constitution and used a lower and less difficult standard.

The federal RFRA did nothing but require the courts to decide cases where the r ight to the free exercise of religion came in conflict with laws on the ORIGINAL standard.

That’s it.

We went back to doing it the way we had always done it.

Then, in 1997, the Court decided that the federal RFRA applied only to federal law, and several states (including mine, CT) passed their own RFRAs to make sure the original standard was also used in their state courts.  The IN act just passed is not significantly different than any of those, and remains nothing but a standard to be used by courts.  If you have a beef with a state law and think following it violates your right to freedom of religion, you can bring a lawsuit and the court that hears it will be required to apply the compelling government interest/least burdensome method standard when it decides if you have a Constitutional right to be free of that law.

The first thing that really shocked the hell out of me was the fact that so many people thought the IN law was something brand new that was being trotted out so that people could discriminate against gay people.

The second thing that really shocked the hell out of me was that so few people know what a right is.

Okay.  I’ve known for a long time that most people in the US these days have no idea what a right is.  But the display of both ignorance and indignation knocked me off my feet.

Let’s start here:

Rights are not laws.

Rights, under the US Constitution as written, are restraints on government power.

That’s it.  They’re a list of things the government of the US and (through the 14th amendment) the states are not allowed to do.

The people who wrote that Constitution saw government as a necessary evil.  They never forgot that it was necessary, but they also never forgot that it was evil.

They thought of government the way many of us think of nuclear power–get it running right and it’s a boon; let it get out of control and it will lay waste to the landscape.

Rights–especially the rights in the bill of rights–were their attempt to figure out what the necessary controls were, to make sure individuals–and ONLY INDIVIDUALS–had free reign to make decisions about their lives without government interference.

Rights were not expected to make people moral, or to make civil society better and more just and fair, or any of the rest of it.

Rights were supposed to do one thing–protect individual citizens from their government.

Part of the problem here is that, over the years, we’ve come to use the word “rights” to mean a lot of things the word never meant in the 18th century.  We talk about the “right” to education and the “right” to Social Security benefits, for instance.

What these are are actually what are more properly called “rights in law,” benefits resulting from laws we pass that require positive action.

But you can’t have an actual right–see original definition above–to anything anybody has to give you.  You don’t own other people.  You have no absolute claim on their work or time.

And, unlike rights, such things are dependent on the whim of the electorate.  They can disappear tomorrow, and if you were stranded on a desert island you wouldn’t be able to access them at all.

Real (natural, Lockean) rights inhere in the person.  You have them on that desert island.  You have them even when governments violate them.  The are extrapolations from what we know to be true about human nature–if the government does THIS, society is innovative and free; if it does THAT instead, society is constrained and unproductive. Governments can violate rights, but they can’t escape the consequences of the violation.  In the end, the consequences will hurt everybody involved.

It is also sometimes true that rights very often mean that government is not allowed to step in when people are behaving badly.  Sometimes it means that government cannot step in even when people are being evil.

We live with the badness and the evil because it is the LESSER evil–allowing government the control that would (maybe) eliminate that evil ends in a far worse situation than leaving the evil alone and letting the jerks be jerks.

In the middle of one of the discussions I had, somebody accused me of being willing to defend any law as long as it was old, the implication being the the First Amendment, or at least the parts of it guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, was just an outdated piece of biased, bigotted nonsense that we should dump now that things are different.

But that is not why I would defend the First Amendment, and the rest of them, pretty much down to my last breath.  And it’s not why I thank the God I don not believe in that you can’t get rid of that amendment without the agreement of two thirds of both houses of congress and three quarters of the states.

I defend it because I think it is a proper and always necessary restraint on government power.  Government should not be allowed to force our consciences.  It should not be allowed to demand that we act in violation of what we believe.  It should have no power over our decision to live our lives according to our consciences.

The “free exercise of religion” does NOT mean that you get to huddle in your churches with your fellow believers and “believe” together as long as you don’t let out your beliefs in public.

It means that you get to live your life every day, in public and out loud, by the things you believe in, even if those things shock people, or hurt their feelings, or make them angry.

Mind you, this is only a restraint on government power.

Your fellow citizens are perfectly free to denounce you, fire y ou, refuse to hire you, call you names on FB, and all the rest of it.  They too have free exercise rights, meaning the government can’t stop THEM from telling you off.

People now seem shocked that the right to free exercise of religion might mean that some people can legally refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding, for instance, and they think “discrimination” is such an absolute evil that it would should let the government force people to comply with the present Official Moral Position.

But the Official Moral Position today won’t be the Official Moral Position tomorrow, and letting the US government and the governments of the various states erect what are essentially state churches is not going to end discrimination, or prejudice, or bigotry.  It’s just going to set up a situation where the next guy who comes along will have that much more power to coerce us.

And he’ll use it.  And what he’ll use it for–well, I do rather think we’re going to see Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a Republican President after 2016, and if we can establish an Official Moral Position now, I’ll bet they’ll have a few you really won’t like.

C0ntrary to all the hysteria, there is nothing to say that when the courts hear the cases that are coming, they’ll side with bakers who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings.

They most definitely will NOT side with anyone (if there is anyone) who wants to refuse service to black people in their restaurant.  The compelling government interest behind the general public accommodations laws were established in case law decades ago.

“All men are created equal,” the Declaration says, “and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  To secure these right, government is instituted among men…”

“To secure these rights.”  That’s what the government is supposed to do.  That’s it’s first job, to protect us from ITSELF.

Real rights are not anything we make them or any law we pass.  They aren’t about making people good or society just or any of the utopian stuff we all want.

They are protecting individuals from government, period.

And if we are not protected against our government, nothing else we get will be of any value, or any use, in the long run.


Written by janeh

March 30th, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ayn Rand, Writer

with 3 comments

This is what happened:  I am working on fiction, at the moment, and because of that I am trying to read only fiction, because that sometimes helps.  Other times, not so much.  But you see what I mean.

What got me started thinking about rereading The Fountainhead was something unrelated to either Rand or the fiction I’m working on that reminded me of a Rand character named Ellsworth Toohey.

This particular Rand character is a villain, which you can sort of tell by the name.  And I’ve always thought that no matter what else Rand did right or wrong, she was pitch-perfect in her villains, and Toohey is a type almost everybody has met somewhere along the line.  In The Fountainhead he is a newspaper journalist.  These days he would almost certainly be an academic.  He’s vile virtually everywhere he’s found, and if you’ve ever met one, you’ll remember.

But the truth is that even though The Fountainhead is a novel, I almost never think of Rand as a writer of fiction.  I got through the novels and on to the nonfiction early enough, and from then on I tended to think of Rand as a writer on ideas.  By the end of her life, she thought of herself as a philosopher.  Her critics didn’t like to accord her the title, but I think she had a point.  I don’t see what else you would call what she did.

I was thinking of Rand at all because there are dozens of people on my FB friends list who post the most ridiculous, cartoony nonsense about “Randism,” which I sometimes try to counter, and which I mostly just ignore.  It’s obvious that most of these people have never read Rand, and not only because they’d know better if they had.  You’d be amazed how many of them post absolutely spot on Rand sentiments (stand by your own values and beliefs and don’t be influenced by the crowd!) that they just don’t know are core Rand ideas.

But whatever got me started thinking about this, what I want to take about here are not Rand’s ideas, but her practice as a writer of fiction.  She did, after all, write two of the best selling novels in the history of US publishing, and those novels are still selling in six figures today.  I don’t think there are that many people out there who would be willing to buy novels that don’t work as novels just to get at the ideas.

And, I have to admit up front, on some levels Rand’s novels work very well as novels.  Her plots are intricate, innovative and coherent.  And, as I said once before on this blog, the woman is to narrative drive what Sherman was to marching through Georgia.

But although the plots are outstanding and the portraits of the villains are nearly  perfect, I never liked Rand as a writer of fiction because I never liked her heroes and heroines.

Like John Milton, whose only compelling character in Paradise Lost is Satan,  all the talent Rand had seemed to desert her when it came to writing good guys.  I was interested in what happened to Howard Roark and Hank Reardon because I was conceptually interested in the positions Rand put them in.  Otherwise, I found them all a little tiresome and annoying.

The copy of The Fountainhead I had at home to read was the 25th anniversary edition, and that one started with a special forward by the author, explaining what she had been tying to do with the novel.

That was a help, because it gave me information I hadn’t had before.  First and foremost, it told me that Rand’s purpose in writing fiction was to portray the idea kind of human being, and that she was (deliberately) working in the tradition of Romanticism, and not of naturalism.

If those words make no sense to you, my best guess is that you’ve probably read naturalism most of your fiction-reading life, since naturalism has been the primary mode for fiction for over a hundred years.  Every mystery novel I can think of is an example of naturalism.  So is most science fiction.  So are Dickens, Shaw and Heminway.

There’s a fair amount of fantasy that could be called Romantic in the literary sense–Lord of the Rings is in many aspects.  Interestingly, most Romance novels are not examples of Romanticism in the literary sense, especially not the ones set present day.

If you read a Romantic novel in school, it was probably Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

And no, Romantic in the literary sense has nothing to do with love stories.

I tend to find Romantic (in the literary sense) novels less congenial than I do naturalistic novels.  That’s not a value judgment but a statement of taste.  I find them less congenial in the same sense I find pork chops less congenial than turkey breasts.

But reading through Rand’s introduction made it possible for me to hone in on some particulars, and here they are.

1) I have nothing against works of fiction (or nonfiction) that try to portray ideal human beings, I just tend to define “ideal” differently than Rand does.  Both Apollo 13 and Band of Brothers each portray at least one ideal human being and I find both of those not only more believable than Rand’s heroes, but more ideal.

I am not talking, here, about the silly notions of what Rand stood for (she wants people to be selfish!  she hates the poor!) that some people substitute for what she actually said.  Both Dick Winters and Jim Lovell could easily be Rand heroes on all the points that mattered to her: having the courage of their convictions; taking responsibility for themselves and their circumstances; having work ethics out the wazoo; basing their decisions on their own ideas, desires, and beliefs and not on whether or not other people will like them.

There’s a difference in tone, though, and the tone really matters to me.

And part of that is due to the fact that I’m an American.

And part of my problem with Rand as a novelist is that Rand  was not.

2) Since all of Rand’s writing is in English and all of it was written here, she’s an “American writer.”

But she isn’t, really.

In tone, style, intellectual orientation and a whole lot of other ways, Rand was and is a Russian writer.

This comes out in two ways in particular.

First, all that talking about ideas in the middle of the novel.  Tolstoy did it.  Dostoyevski did it.  Gorki did it.  Turgenev did it.  Russian novels are novels of ideas.

And if you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend a  Woody Allen movie called Love and Death, in which he sends up the form hilariously.

All writers are strongly affected by the things they read as children and adolescents, and I think that what we have in Rand’s novels is Rand trying to replicate what she admired in the first novels she did admire.  In a similar way, hardboiled detective writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Chandler and fantasy writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Tolkein.   I keep trying to channel Hemingway, but I’m not very good at it.

But there is a second way in which Rand is more like a Russian novelist than an American one, and that is in her approach to humor.

It is not only that she has no sense of humor (which she doesn’t), but that she is inherently suspicious of humor.  Like Dostoyevski and Tolstoy before her, she seems incapable of imaging that humor could ever be anything but belittling and antagonistic.  Like all the classic Russian writers, and like Solzhenitsyn as well, humor is never anything but a weapon.

I think this is why I’ve always found Rand’s nonfiction more easy to read than her fiction.  I don’t need funny in an essay about aesthetics or the foundational principles of moral behavior.

But I do prefer funny in books, even in very dark books.  And fiction without it feels cramped and rigid to me.

This is, I suppose, pretty much the way I feel about life.  A day without something to laugh at is not a pleasant day.  A day when I am too pressed down by things to worry about to be able to laugh when I’m given the chance is worse.

In the end, I think Rand’s focus was much more on her ideas than on fiction as a form.  And if somebody asks me what they should read of Rand’s, I always recommend either the strictly nonfictional, or the excerpts of those long philosophical tracts from the novels that might as well have been nonfiction.

Even so–the villains are perfect.  And everybody should know them, because they help to recognize the real thing in real life.

And I have finished the reread and gone back to detective novels.


Written by janeh

March 25th, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Transitional Phases

with 5 comments

It’s been so long since I logged on to this blog, I thought I’d forgotten the password.  But I hadn’t, which is interesting, since I’m constantly losing the ones for my bank account and that kind of thing, and especially for school.  On the other hand, the blog doesn’t make me change the password every 48 days, so there’s that.

I have been called in the pick up the second half of one of the courses that were being taught by a fellow faculty member who has now gone on medical leave for the rest of the semester.  It’s the same course I taught last term, but with a different book (don’t mind) and a LOT more students.  The faculty member is someone I’ve known for a long time and always liked very much, and also one of the very few people I see around when I’m not in school.  That’s not because we do things together, but because we do the same things and run into each other.

She’s in very bad shape medically, and around my age (more or less), which makes her the third person in the same category I’ve had bad news from or about in the last week and a half.  Ellen Conford, a long time author of children’s books and a long time participant on RAM, died a couple of days ago, after a heart attack.  I heard for the first time that a woman I went to high school with died of breast cancer a couple of months ago.

This business of people I know dying is becoming a little edgy, I think.  I suppose the first time I got the news that somebody had died that I’d known “my whole life,” it was my brother, who was three years younger than I am, which meant I had known him his whole life.  Literally.  I can still remember him coming home from the hospital.

For some reason, that didn’t hit me in the same way the death of the first of my kindergarten class did.  My reaction was made stronger by the fact that this woman was one of the people I was very much aware of when we were in class together.  I didn’t know her well, but I knew of her.  She wasn’t one of the local “popular crowd,” but she was distinctive, and we road the same school bus where she got off a few stops ahead of me.

I don’t think of myself as old, although I probably look it, but there are more and more of these cases these days. This is especially true of catastrophic illnesses, something I got familiar with early.  Bill was only 46 when  he died.  His sister JoAnn was only in her early 50s when she died a few years later, and of the same thing, a type of cancer so rare, there are no known risk factors for it.

But there have been other people, more and more of them, and most of them would not fit into the category of “really old now and what can you expect?”

There seems to have been a kind of staircase effect, staring when all these people were in their mid Forties.

Most of us these days can expect to live at least until we’re 80.  In my family, we’ve done a fair bit of living into our 90s.

But starting around the time the people I knew were 45, there seems to have been a small but steady drumbeat of people dying–and not in accidents, either.  The most common cause has been one or another kind of cancer.  But there have been other things, including early heart attacks, which is what got my brother.

And there isn’t much of the lives of any of these people that would necessarily have predicted what happened.  My brother was notoriously cavalier about not taking care of himself, but Bill and my sister in law did nothing anybody could have used to predict what happened to them.  The women I know who have fallen to breast cancer didn’t have much in the way of risk factors, either.   As to the early heart attacks–in at least two cases, they hit the people you would least expect, the ones who ate right and got a lot of  exercise and never smoked anything.

The whole thing seems so completely random, at the moment, that I’m wondering if the precautions we all take do any good at all.  Maybe they’re like the prayers of atheists who send up pleas for help to something they believe isn’t there.

It’s a thought that runs afoul of “risk factors,” which are instances of correlation we all agree to accept as causation.  It probably feels better than to accept that we’re all at the mercy of chance.

I think, though, that it is getting harder and harder for most of us to believe it–and that’s why we’re all becoming more and more strident at imposing rules.

It’s like a lot of other faith-based initiatives, the ones that real life disproves no matter how much we try to ignore the disproof.  When the first level of control doesn’t change human nature, we pile on another and then another and then another.

First smoking was going to kill us all, and knowing that would make people quit.  When lots of people refused to quit, we raised prices and banned the practice in public and then declared (against all the evidence) that “secondhand” smoke would do as much damage.  When that didn’t stop everybody, we started talking about “thirdhand” smoke.

Under Stalin, the attempts to build the “New Soviet Man” first required “better” education, then “oversight” of the family, then… But you know how that one ends.  These days we have schools where whole swaths of ideas have been declared unthinkable, and it doesn’t occur to anybody that the reason people aren’t turning out the way we want them to is that–they can’t.

Human nature is inborn.  There are some things we cannot make human beings be, or stop them from being.

Apparently, one of those things is being free from early death.

It’s depressing.




Written by janeh

March 23rd, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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