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I have a few friends with whom I regularly exchange long complicated emails about life, the universe and everything. One of these friends, who has a rather mischievous sense of humor, set a trap for the rest of us. He sent us a LOOOOONG article that expressed some really strong sociopolitical views, and asked for our opinion. He refused to tell us where the article was from, saying "I have edited it a bit - but I am not the author. I'd rather you chaps read it without attribution, so that we can debate the strength of the arguments instead of being influenced by the institution backing this work..."

So I said fine, and started reading. I quickly lost patience and shot back an email, citing a bit of the long article.

I replied as follows:

--- begin exchange ---

"Seems like a Glenn Beck polemic honestly. The thing lost me right here:

" Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong,  good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The  reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not  correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West  because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so  forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in  primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he  GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points  out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in  Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist's real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful."

This is just a fairly idiotic strawman characterization of leftism... [The left] has its flaws, as does the right, but neither side is THIS intellectually silly. When such a passage is inserted into an argument, it's already lost me because everything that comes after it is suspect.

Sounds like a 23 year old full of angry half-digested, quarter-understood ideas, projecting his/her own messed-up-ness onto the subject matter...This COULD turn into useful thoughts if it were simmered on the back burner for 10 years and dished out one ladleful at a time. As it stands, it simply screams "untrustworthy."

In general, I distrust anything that attacks topics of this level of ambition with this particular form of argumentation. There is a reason my be-slightly-evil list has the tongue-in-cheek landing page that says "I solemnly swear I will not attempt to change the world." This is what maniacal world-changing rhetoric sounds like.

Chains of reasoning that are this long should NOT be constructed analytically, even if you can construct several parallel support threads. They should be constructed in narrative, philosophical fiction form, which is far more robust and much easier to critique, debate, improve etc. Much as I think Ayn Rand is terrible both as philosophy and fiction, hers is the right form of argumentation for that kind of thesis. There is a reason Nietzsche picked the fictional parable-journey format for Thus Spake Zarathustra (vastly better than Rand both philosophically and as fiction). He was a past master at poking holes in THIS type of argument... his approach was "poke enough holes and the edifice will fall." Narratives are robust to that kind of attack (in fact they lack that particular kind of brittleness). The historical evidence and human behavioral/motivational assumptions holding up such straight-up analyses can be shot to pieces in minutes, whereas philosophical fiction is immune to that particular attack.

... I am not yet a good enough writer to write good philosophical fiction though, so it will have to wait. In the Gervais Principle series, I am borrowing someone else's story to construct a philosophical argument. Someday I may be able to write my own."

My friend shot back an email immediately:

Well, OK, I have to reveal the author after THAT strong a critique... 
 
This is the manifesto of Dr. Ted Kaczynski, mathematician (PhD, UMich, Ann Arbor) & UC Berkeley assprof. I merely suppressed the references to killing, and the naming of his own organization.

--- end email exchange ---

My silent reaction: "bastard!" What if I had NOT strongly critiqued the article? What would that have said about me? Fortunately I passed the test. I spotted and reacted to the red flags appropriately.

How's that for a trial by fire? I can just imagine that if I had been less alert, or if my friend's email had caught me on a more depressed day, I might have missed the danger signs and said something enthusiastically supportive. (My friend is emphasizing UMich because that's my alma mater. More of his mischievous sense of humor).

I am relieved I passed the test. Lesson: "slightly evil" is all well and good so long as you have a sense of humor and caution about it. But be wary of danger signals in your own thinking and in people around you. And seek or offer or send help if red flags appear. And above all, do not, repeat, NOT, attempt to change the world. If it is meant to happen, and the forces of history conspire to put you in the right place at the right time so you play a crucial role, so be it. But don't set out to change the world.

Write bad Ayn Randish novels instead.


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