Mudita Journal

Ed Snowden’s public appearances

June 7, 2014 · Filed under: Current Events, Politics

If you find a recorded public appearance by Ed Snowden not listed here, please e-mail the link to me at joshuazader at GMail. Please also notify me if any links below have expired.

Below is a list of all publicly available appearances by Ed Snowden since the original disclosure of his identity as the whistleblower behind Glenn Greenwald’s reporting, in early July 2013. For additional information about Snowden, his motivations, and the story behind his decision to become a whistleblower, I highly recommend Greenwald’s new book No Place to Hide.

2013-07-09 – The Guardian: Interview Part I and Part II (12 and 7 min, respectively) – Snowden’s original reveal as the NSA whistleblower. The interview was conducted in Hong Kong by Glenn Greenwald and filmed & edited by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.

2014-01-27 – German TV channel NDR: Interview with Ed Snowden (30 min) – Snowden discusses the relevance of the NSA’s activities to other countries around the world.

2014-03-10 – SXSW (South by Southwest) appearance (61 minutes) – In a remote appearance from Russia, Snowden spoke on the importance of encryption, and answered questions from the public for the first time, in a talk that was praised strongly by Esquire.

2014-03-19 – TED talk: “Here’s how we take back the internet” (35 min) – Snowden appears from an undisclosed location in Moscow “via a telepresence robot, which he was able to control remotely.”

2014-05-28 – NBC News with Brian Williams: “Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden” (45 min) – Conducted in Moscow, this was Snowden’s first interview with an American TV network since the original revelations. See also the excerpt about the legacy of 9/11 (3 min), not aired in the original broadcast.

2014-06-01 – Globo Brazil TV interview: “Edward Snowden has applied for asylum in Brazil” (33 min) – Filmed in Moscow. The reporting is in Portugese, but the interview itself was conducted and aired in English. (Globo also published the original broadcast on their own site.)

2014-06-05 – Personal Democracy Forum comments on the “Save the internet” theme (2 min excerpt) – Snowden discusses Google’s new end-to-end encryption plugin as part of the “reset the net” campaign, and the responsibility for citizens to take responsibility for their own freedom: “We don’t have to ask for our privacy. We can take it back.”

Ostracism: What does civility require? The case of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich

April 4, 2014 · Filed under: Current Events, Intellectual, Politics

Here are my thoughts on the forced resignation of new Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. I ultimately believe the differences of opinion on this topic come down to the question of civility.

The uncivil perspective: Use ostracism when someone is wrong about something important, and we think we can get away with it.

Problem is, people commonly disagree about what is wrong and what is important. If we use it on them today, they have more justification for using it on us tomorrow.

It creates an inquisition-like atmosphere of fear and conformity on all sides of all issues, because the stakes are higher, there is less room for independent judgment, and honest thoughtfulness and rationality are less likely to prevail inside each person’s mind.

The civil perspective: Avoid ostracism in all but the most extreme cases, such as when human rights are at stake and (not or) a clear majority has been firmly established.

Most of my friends agree gay marriage should be legal, as a matter of human rights. What we may disagree about is whether ostracism should be employed in our present situation, where public opinion has been fairly evenly divided, we are already beginning to win the public debate, it is only a matter of time before we prevail, and the debate has been largely civil and productive so far.

The steel-man version of Andrew Sullivan’s argument is that, by employing ostracism too early — before a majority opinion has had time to settle — and retroactively, at that, we are making honest rational decision making less likely and ultimately lowering our standards of civility.

We also create a society where people of mixed opinions no longer mingle safely. How does it ultimately help us for the CEO of Mozilla to take a job with, for example, a Christian organization? Is it not better that he live and work among people more likely to change his mind? (For the record, I don’t know whether Eich is a Christian or ever has been. I don’t think it much matters, here.)

It is very much like the attempted use of ostracism in the global warming debate. It is employed to prematurely shut down discussion and dissent. Civility requires leaving the discussion open, allowing rational opinions to change due to persuasion rather than ostracism.

I’m trying to express the steel-man version of Sullivan’s argument. And I believe this is the side I ultimately come down on, as a matter of principle. At the same time, I don’t actually know if I could enjoyably work under Eich as Mozilla’s CEO. I experience considerable revulsion against his position.

It really is a question of whether we’re willing to tolerate others, or we just want them to tolerate us.

And I’m on the line about this particular guy. But when I see people pretending that the line is 200 yards that way, I begin to think they only use words like “tolerance” when it is convenient. They want Christians to tolerate gays, but they don’t want gay rights advocates to tolerate Christians.

And that is terribly, unjustly ironic.

Defining integrity

March 17, 2014 · Filed under: Intellectual

I am in the process of creating a new site for zader.com. It will be an online magazine devoted to the theme of living with integrity. I’ll publish new essays periodically, eventually folding those essays into books on key topics — such as integrity, emotions, love, and meditation.

In my lead essay I explore the meaning of integrity. One challenge with the essay has been formulating a good definition.

For my purposes, the best definition (a) is concise, (b) acknowledges the full role of integrity in our lives, and (c) provides a decidedly helpful heuristic for practicing integrity.

Below is a sketch of my thought process so far. I welcome feedback and suggestions for further improvement.

1. Conventional definition

Integrity is the moral virtue of adhering to one’s values.

Pros: It’s the familiar definition, with which virtually everyone is at least somewhat acquainted.

Cons: Fails to acknowledge the importance of intellectual integrity, of updating one’s views in response to new experience. By this definition, a committed member of the Third Reich would have integrity if only he followed orders well enough.

2. Spiritual definition

Integrity is living the truth.

Pros: Concise. Captures something vital about the essence of integrity — namely, consonance with what is real, what is true.

Cons: Vague. Offers little insight about the elements of integrity or where to focus one’s efforts. It relies upon a metaphorical notion of truth, that “the truth” is something which can be lived directly.

3. Experiential triad

Integrity is consistency among what we see, believe, and do.

Pros: Acknowledges the role of intellectual integrity. Calls attention to three key realms of experience which can fall out of alignment. While longer than the other two definitions, it is still relatively concise.

Cons: Fails to acknowledge one of the most significant realms of experience, which is what we feel. Our inner experience provides critically important hints about right and wrong, what we should prioritize in life, and even who or what we are.

Technically, the word “see” is too narrow, excluding the other senses. More accurate words might be “experience,” “perceive,” or “know.” Each carries some baggage, however, such as making the definition feel more like an academic or philosophic exercise rather than a practical rule of thumb.

Analogous to the word “see,” the word “believe” captures colloquially the ways we codify truth, value, and rightness.

I wish I could remember where I first encountered this definition. I admire its incisiveness. I considered using a variation of it, with the addendum: “Feeling is seeing — turned inward.” But this relegates feeling to the status of an afterthought.

It is the working definition I used throughout most of my writing process. But something kept bothering me. When we look closely at how to cultivate integrity on a day-to-day basis, what we feel — the entire realm of inner, felt experience — plays a truly pivotal role. For practical purposes, it should be integral to the definition.

4. Experiential quad

Integrity is the practice of pursuing harmony among what we feel, see, believe, and do.

Pros: Includes a genus (“practice”) which suggests integrity is more than merely a moral virtue. Acknowledges the role of what we feel. Advocates “harmony,” which suggests alignment and mutual reinforcement, rather than “consistency,” which can imply an overly-simplistic ideal. Generally suggests integrity is an active process, rather than a binary state you either have or don’t have.

Cons: No longer as concise. Begins to seem like a list.

* * *

Tell me what you think.

A question I am pondering: Does what we “feel, see, believe, and do” capture our experience in sufficient resolution for a definition — or are there other types of experience that seem equally important?

I can tolerate listing four types of experience within the definition. If there are more, however, then I might want to find ways to consolidate.

A personal statement on Ayn Rand

January 4, 2014 · Filed under: Atlasphere, Individualism, Intellectual, Objectivism, Personal

The topic of Ayn Rand’s personal life, how it could have affected her philosophy, and whether her overall philosophy is truly valid, has come up regularly lately on my Facebook timeline.

And for good reason. Many who go through a phase of identifying closely with Ayn Rand’s philosophy later come to disavow the term “Objectivist.” Often one factor in their decision is simply that they can’t stand the moralistic-antagonistic antics of those in the orthodox branch of the Objectivist movement, even though they still agree with the basics of Rand’s philosophy.

Others stop calling themselves “Objectivist” for more substantive reasons. Some of my closest Rand-influenced friends have, through their explorations of personal and spiritual growth, come to advocate something like subjectivism. They no longer appreciate Rand’s perspective on the role and value of reason.

In that vein, I would like to offer a very brief summary of where I stand, including what I value most in Rand’s philosophy, where I see room for improvement, and why I do still consider myself an Objectivist, broadly defined.

In a nutshell, I tremendously value and appreciate Rand’s application of the intrinsic/objective/subjective trichotomy to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

While I would enjoy seeing even better solutions to the is-ought problem, for example, I think she was essentially right about both the existence and nature of an objective approach to reality, to knowledge, and to ethics.

I would love to see someone offer even better formulations in these areas, and I believe there is room to do so, especially in the analysis of virtue and its practice, if only because of the complexity of human nature and society. But to me, both subjective and intrinsic views are a dead end. So I appreciate her work to present objective theories in each of these areas.

To me, improving upon her philosophy would consist of formulating more objective understandings — including ones reflecting a more subtle and comprehensive understanding of human nature, especially in the areas of emotion, intuition, empathy, love, and community — rather than jettisoning objectivity, per se.

On an even more personal note, though, I am deeply curious about the tremendous psychological value of acceptance, and what implications that has for a philosophy of reason. I would love to explore this more in a future posting.

Recipe: Creamy chocolate tea

December 6, 2013 · Filed under: Health, Paleo, Recipes

chocolate-teaI love sipping chocolate tea in the winter. I’ve been fiddling with this particular recipe for a couple weeks. Yesterday’s batch was a winner.

I’ll no doubt refine it further, but this version is worth sharing and inviting input.

The recipe is optimized for the consumption of extremely healthy fats. It is paleo friendly, with no milk products other than grassfed butter.

This is in no way a low-calorie beverage. I sip it throughout the day for energy (calories) and warmth, as well as the deliciously creamy and rich flavor.

To begin, combine the following in a 40-oz thermos and steep for at least 10 minutes:

After it finishes steeping, pour the contents of the thermos into a blender, remove the tea bags, and add the following:

Blend to emulsify the healthy fats. Then taste the final result, to see if it needs more sweetener. I like mine to have a dark chocolate taste, almost unsweetened.

The tea will cool considerably while in the blender. If I want it to stay hot all day, I pour it into a bowl, or a pair of very large glasses, and microwave it for a few minutes before pouring it back into the thermos with a funnel.

Once you return the tea to the thermos, tighten the lid and enjoy sipping it throughout the day.

If you give the recipe a try, I welcome your comments below.

Reset the toner sensor on your Brother printer HL-2270DW

April 27, 2013 · Filed under: Uncategorized

My Brother HL-2270DW printer refuses to continue printing, once the toner gets sufficiently low, even though the toner cartridge still contains enough toner to print many more pages.

The toner light comes on and the only way to override the printer’s stubbornness is by following this sequence of steps, which I found in the bowels of a discussion forum, after several other recommended solutions didn’t work.

These instructions worked for me. I’m posting them here so others can find them more easily. They may work for other models of Brother printers, as well.

- Open the front cover and leave open while completing the following steps.
- Turn the printer off.
- Hold the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button) while turning the printer on. All panel lights should be on.
- Release the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button).
- Press the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button) 2 times.
- Pause. All panel lights should be on.
- Press the ‘go’ button (or “start’ button) 5 times.
The toner light should be off. (error may be flashing)
The paper light should be on or flashing.
- Close cover. The ready light should be the only light on.

I also had to turn the printer on and off again, at the end, before my computer recognized the printer was connected and printed the job I was waiting for.

UPDATE: Back-dating this post by a year, since it’s a thematic anomaly, so it doesn’t show up at the top of my blog.

The skyscraper and the cherry blossom: Why Objectivism needs secular spirituality

After my “Pointing to the reality” post, my intelligent Rand-loving friend was rubbed the wrong way by my suggestion that cherry blossoms are on the same level with skyscrapers: Skyscrapers give us an appreciation for things as they could be, for the ways man changes the world. How can cherry blossoms compare? Here is my reply.

I like your summary of the worldview Ayn Rand articulates, about man’s life as the standard of value, and how much meaning there is at that level, of shaping the world around us to fit our needs and to support our life and happiness. I not only agree with this worldview, I wish more people knew about it and embraced it. It’s a worldview I’m happy to promote and defend publicly, as you saw in my Reason TV interview.

Looking at the big picture, though, I believe we’re back to the Indian fable of the elephant and the blind men. What else might we feel, if we move beyond the particular portion of the beast that Rand is so in touch with? I believe it’s that, as human beings, we have access to two very significant levels of meaning. The first is the level of the intellect — of mind, concepts, and thought. The second is the level of being — of body, perception, and experience.

Rand doesn’t devote much time to the second, other than to occasionally derogate it as the “animal” mode of consciousness. What she’s missing, though, is that this level of consciousness is truly foundational to so many aspects of one’s health, happiness, and experience of meaning. It’s also foundational to a healthy spirituality.

When I say it’s foundational to our health, I don’t merely mean we need a healthy body so that our minds can operate; I mean much more. Man’s mind did not just give us the skyscraper and intercontinental aircraft and cell phones. It also gave us socialist gulags, concentration camps, and religion. In fact, the more mind-oriented (rather than being-oriented) a religion becomes, the more malignant and dangerous it is. Instead of Buddhists sitting around meditating, we get jihadists lining up for seventy-two virgins.

Of course Rand would counter that these socialists and religionists are totally irrational and anti-mind. Very well. Let’s look at something closer to home. Let’s look at followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. For decades, ardent followers of her philosophy have earned a reputation as moralistic, emotionally repressed misfits with few social skills. Many are far more likely to sit around and rant about government programs and the irrationality of religion than to actually do that much to make the world a better place. Too often they use her ideas as a way of justifying their own narcissistic and socially inept tendencies.

Or, just to really drive the point home, let’s look at Rand herself, who dragged her husband through her decade-long affair with a younger man and died bitter and alone, alienated from so many of her close friends. She is not a healthy role model to follow, at least in certain important respects. She had a piece of the elephant, which she could articulate beautifully, but it was also a very incomplete piece. She suffered for it, and those around her suffered for it.

If I sound harsh with this criticism, it’s because I am more interested in the reality to which her words point, than in the words themselves (or in who spoke them). And the reality is that when people become too obsessed with the intellectual level of experience, and disconnected from the being level of experience, they get out of balance in some disturbing ways.

There seem to be some good reasons for this, psychologically and epistemically. Rand spoke eloquently about how important it was to learn and practice logic, and she’s got a point. But we should remember that most ten-year-olds have a perfectly good grasp of basic logic; it’s hard to trick them. What they lack, and so many never develop adequately, is an understanding of their body, of their emotions, of their capacity to simply relax and be deeply present with their experience. These are all crucially important to a healthily functioning mind.

When you are weak in your relationship to life at the experiential, emotional, and perceptual levels, you are handicapped at the conceptual level too. When you don’t have a close and compassionate relationship to your own emotions, all the logic texts in the world won’t save you; you will be ruled by emotions and instinct in the very moments when you need logic most.

Researchers in medicine and psychology have been onto this for decades and have developed treatment programs to help people learn to be more present in their body, more accepting of their emotions, more willing to get intimate with their experience. It turns out to be a fantastic treatment not only for anxiety and depression, but everything from psoriasis to chronic pain to eating disorders.

The first of these programs was called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. (This is the same mindfulness that I refer to in the subtitle of my blog: Mindfulness and Individualism.) It’s a secular program for learning meditation and basic yoga. The man who developed it, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a longtime practitioner of yogic and Buddhist meditation techniques, and had firsthand experience with the benefits of being more grounded in the body, in experience, and in being.

You might’ve noticed that I keep bringing up the word “being,” rather than just the body or the perceptual level of consciousness. And that’s because a central tenet of these practices is not just being more relaxed, or more attentive to the body, or more aware of our emotions. It’s about accepting what is. It’s about being in a nonadversarial relationship to reality. It’s about being intimately in touch with the very ground of being, itself — in ourself, in others, and in the world around us.

And this is not an act of the intellect; it is an act of emotion and perception and will, of having the will to perceive the world without filters, including all its pain and blemishes and heartache, and to move toward those experiences rather than away from them. To stay psychologically open to pain (while also taking steps to reduce it, where available) is in many ways the essence of the spiritual path. When you do, you suddenly find the cherry blossom is not just a flower; it is the universe whispering in our ear that life is beautiful, that we are beautiful, and all we have to do is be present for it.

Often the biggest barrier to being fully present is the intellect — our tendency to encounter everything conceptually and verbally, rather than turning off our mind and allowing ourselves sink deeply into experience as such. Often we’re afraid to turn off the mind, and this is one of the ways we become a slave to our emotions: Emotions normally tell us reality is scary, and to keep working on a way out, a way to avoid feeling what has taken place and will take place.

I’m describing these things in intellectual terms, but this is not an intellectual experience. It is a perceptual and emotional experience, and we only get there fully when we’re willing to do the most counterintuitive thing in the world: To turn toward pain, rather than away from it. To deeply accept reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, even as we work to improve it. To let go of our emotional resistance to the way things are. When we do these things, the cherry blossoms take on new significance.

The metaphors of the skyscraper and the cherry blossom each, of course, stand for much more. The skyscraper is a metaphor for our capacities for intelligence, productivity, and wealth. The cherry blossom is a metaphor for the natural world, of the world as we find it, and of our appreciation for being as such.

It bothered you that I elevated cherry blossoms to the same level with skyscrapers. And I understand why, if our primary yardstick is the value of the intellect. If we grasp the crucial role of being, however, and the meaning that deep awareness of being can add to our lives, it’s hard to overestimate the power of the cherry blossom. As a metaphor, it stands for a tremendous capacity we have inside, to heal ourselves, to enjoy ourselves, to remain in a healthy and harmonious relationship to reality.

So, to summarize: The mind is a beautiful thing, but it is also a dangerous thing. On a personal level, the best way to hold it in check is not with more mind, but with more being — more staying in touch with our bodies, our emotions, our capacity for felt experience of reality. Often this involves opening to pain, to our own contraction, to our own fear of emotionally allowing life to be what it is, as it is now.

On its own, the cherry blossom offers little to compete with the skyscraper. But as a symbol of nature, of our capacity to exist in a state of harmony with reality, it’s a powerful metaphor for the need to ground our thinking in a deep and abiding appreciation for being as such.

In some places, your letter is haunted by a question: Which is more important, the skyscraper or the cherry blossom? It’s true that without the skyscraper, we live as animals. Yet it’s also true that, without the cherry blossom, we become madmen. How does one choose between those? How could we? Fortunately, we don’t have to. :)

That’s why skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too.

Pointing to the reality

I wrote this in answer to a friend, a relative newcomer to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, who inquired about my interest in spirituality and why I would say something like “The divine is all around us.” Why use the same words that religions use?

I just got back from a 20-minute nap in the sunshine in the grass, in the park down the street. On my way to my favorite patch of grass on the embankment, I was approached by a young black missionary named Marcelle who was carrying a bible and was eager to talk. Sweet kid, seemed lonely, and was happy to have someone to talk to, but happier when I started doing the talking.

Which reminds me of your questions about using spiritual language. I have a few thoughts.

In any spiritual or philosophical tradition, there are those who take things very literally, in a very concrete fashion. Marcelle was doing this. And there are others who are willing to look past the words, past the hardened dogma, to the truth at which it points. These people are more loyal to reality than to scripture or revealed wisdom. You can find these people in any significant spiritual tradition.

When you bring the best of these people together, you notice something interesting. You might have a Catholic, a Sufi, a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Baptist — but, nonetheless, they start agreeing with one another. Most of the folks they go to church with may see mostly differences among their traditions, but these guys, they see similarities: They see that the real miracle is what is around us. That the true spiritual path consists of connecting with this reality in deeper and more meaningful ways, by letting go of our resistance to the way things are. That being present with life is our best teacher. That truly connecting with others is perhaps our highest calling. That expressing ourselves through meaningful life-work, rather than just busywork, allows us to give our fullest gifts to the world.

In this way, no matter the philosophical tradition, they become students of openness, inquiry, connection, presence, and the meaning that flows from these things. I’m not the first to notice this, at all. Many who come to take spirituality seriously begin to notice these commonalities, that the different traditions seem to converge on some common wisdom about life and the spiritual path. They’re all pointing to the reality.

So, as far as why I am comfortable using spiritual words in a different way than Marcelle does… Partly it’s that I understand what he’s groping for, when he does all that talk about God and Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The word “God” does bother me a little, inside. But when I talked with him, I used that word and it settled him right down, to hear someone who understood his longings, and could inquire about his ability to find the peace he’s really longing for inside, rather than telling him he’s a freak and to go away. He seemed deep in thought, by the time I left.

Also, when I talk about the divine all around us, I feel like I’m referring to the way things really are. I certainly try to create goodness in me and the people and circumstances around me, but I also recognize that often things can be good, perfect, without any effort on my part. I’m increasingly at peace with the way I find reality, before I ever touch it. And it brings me a peace I had never felt so fully, when I was trying to make things conform to my wishes.

It isn’t something Rand was always in touch with, but there’s so much beauty in the way things are. Skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too. And often it feels to me like the more we pay attention, the more we realize that the real beauty of the skyscraper is that it tries, in its own effortful way, to conform to the same laws of reality that gave rise to that cherry blossom without an ounce of stress or strain.

Another amazing thing about the skyscraper, of course, as a cultural symbol, is that we’ve been able to improve our standard of living in so many ways, to be more productive — to have more time left over in life for meaning and connection and presence and the simple joys of life — rather than having to worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we’ll be killed by a neighboring clan. This is nearer to Rand’s love of a skyscraper, and it resonates with me as well.

Tasty paleo snack: Coconut oil rounds

December 25, 2012 · Filed under: Health, Paleo, Recipes

I just made this snack for the first time, and it’s surprisingly good, as well as ridiculously easy to make. The trick is to simply cool the coconut oil, which turns it into a creamy dessert-like substance, similar to the texture of chocolate.

Coconut oil offers many health benefits: clearing brain fog, promoting weight loss, improving cholesterol levels, even curing Alzheimer’s disease. But who cares — it tastes really good!

You’ll need a micro muffin tin (available from Amazon for $9.89) and the following ingredients, all available from Trader Joe’s.

Ingredients

- 1 jar virgin organic coconut oil (if it’s not already liquid, warm the jar in a bowl of hot tap water)
- 1 bag raw unsalted almonds
- 1 bag dry roasted & salted macadamia nuts
- 1 bag freeze-dried mangoes

If mangoes aren’t your thing, I’m sure it would also be tasty with their freeze-dried blueberries or strawberries. You could also try sprinkling some shredded coconut on top.

UPDATE: A helpful suggestion from Dave Asprey: “This is WAY better if you mix in raw (ideally low toxin) chocolate powder. I also blend in cacao butter at about 25% in the coconut oil…better consistency, an amazing chocolate flavor. Likewise, a pinch of vanilla powder is awesome in these. (Yes I’m a biased observer because I created a line of low toxin chocolate and vanilla…but I also develop recipes using these things!)”

Instructions

Place a few almonds, a few macadamias, and some small pieces of freeze-dried mangoes in each hole of the muffin tin. (If the mango slices are too big, snap them into pieces with your fingers first.) When you’re done, pour just enough coconut oil in each hole to mostly cover the pieces. Then put it in the fridge for an hour or so, so the coconut oil turns solid.

When you take them out of the fridge, press along the edges with a toothpick, to pop them out of the tin.

They’re very tasty. Be careful not to eat too many, especially on an empty stomach, as these really are loaded with coconut oil.

Enjoy!

Kirsti Minsaas on Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged

August 25, 2012 · Filed under: Intellectual, Objectivism

Tonight I read Karen Reedstrom and Thomas Gramstad’s excellent 1997 Full Context interview with Norwegian literary critic and scholar Kirsti Minsaas. I enjoyed many of the exchanges. Here are some excerpts I found especially thought-provoking.

Q: You are writing a book about Ayn Rand. Can you tell us about the topic, scope and progress of this work?

Minsaas: Well, the book will in part be based on the lectures that I have given, but I want to integrate them into a coherent presentation of Ayn Rand as a literary artist, emphasizing in particular the romantic qualities of her writing, both in terms of style and content. Also, I want to discuss the relationship between literature and philosophy in her works. There seems to be a general tendency, even among Objectivists, to downgrade Ayn Rand’s literary achievement as compared to her philosophical achievement. My own view is that she was a greater artist than philosopher. In fact, I think her philosophy is in many ways reductive of her own thinking, that her ideas, as presented in the novels, through the characters and events and not just the speeches, are much richer and more fertile than her explicit philosophizing. Or to put it differently, I like her better as a literary philosopher than as a theoretical philosopher. This is something I want to emphasize very strongly. Moreover, as a literary scholar, rather than a philosophical activist, I am more interested in showing her power as a novelist than in proving the truth or significance of her philosophy. …

Q: Some people think that there is a big discussion emerging about the nature of virtue, that this is a topic not sufficiently covered by Rand. Can you comment on this?

Minsaas: I think she covered it all right, but again, more as a novelist than as a philosopher. In fact, her heroes are walking embodiments of virtue. And this is why we take interest in them. Several Objectivists have lately emphasized the primacy of value over virtue in Ayn Rand’s ethics, but if you look at the novels, it is obvious that she saw virtue as in many ways an end in itself, the source of one’s own self-esteem and the source of the admiration we may feel for another human being. When we take pleasure in contemplating the character of Howard Roark, for example, it is primarily because of the virtues he embodies and not because of the values he achieves. And if we consider Ayn Rand’s admiration for Cyrano de Bergerac, it seems evident that she regarded greatness of soul as more important than existential success. Conversely, I think that she would have found the story of a man achieving external success but at the cost of virtue as not only boring but morally revolting. But this much being said, there is obviously a lot more to be said about virtue than Ayn Rand ever covered either in her fiction or in her non-fictional writing. Like the contribution of writers and thinkers before her, hers is only a limited, even if important, one. …

Q: Do you think that heroic literature (and arts in general) is dead or do you see something of the heroic tradition continuing today? If so, where and in what form?

Minsaas: It is, of course, still continuing in the popular arts, as Ayn Rand pointed out. But in serious literature it seems to be virtually dead. It seems either to be dismissed as unserious, something you outgrow once you are past your adolescence; or it is associated with the Nazi perversion and with Nietzsche’s superman. In either case, we need to do some scholarship in this area, to show that the heroic represents an important aspect of moral life and that hero worship represents an important psychological need. But it has to be done with a little more sophistication than has been the case in Objectivist debate so far.

Q: Victor Hugo wrote about average men becoming moral giants. We can see Jean Valjean make choices and go from a petty thief, to an ex-con with a bad attitude, to a morally redeemed entrepreneur who rises above his own selfish needs to save the life of his adopted daughter’s lover. We see an ignorant hunchback become a hero, we see a black slave lead a rebellion for freedom in Jamaica. With Hugo’s heroes anyone can say “I can be a hero too, he did it and he was no better or even less than I”. Victor Hugo was nationally revered in his own time. He lived to see a street named after him. On the other hand, Rand’s heroes seem to be ready made geniuses, not the kind of people to appeal to, or inspire, the average man. Do you think that is why there are no streets named after Rand as there was for Hugo? That she doesn’t appeal to average Americans?

Minsaas: You may have a point there; yet Ayn Rand does have a large popular appeal, far beyond what you would expect given the intellectual level of her novels. The reason why she has not been generally recognized, I believe, has more to do with resistance from the intellectual and cultural elite, an elite that is not too appreciative of Hugo either. So in many ways, they are in the same boat; only the times have changed. But I do agree that Rand’s novels may not have the same power to inspire a will to change, to choose a better life course, as is the case with Hugo’s novels. And this is reflected in her esthetics too. What she emphasized there was the kind of art that would appeal to a rational man in need of fuel to sustain his ambition. She did not consider the role of fiction in inspiring such ambition by showing how men may change and improve for the better. Which may have to do with a conception of human perfection as something static, as something largely inborn in fact.

Q: What do you think of Rand’s portrayal of the average man in the character of Eddie Willers? At the end of the book we see him stranded in the middle of nowhere. The “prime movers” are all gone and the average man is left helpless without them. Is this a fair characterization? There is ample proof in reality that the average man can take care of himself in times of disaster. A good example of this is the failure of massive bombing of cities during WWII. Average people quickly adapted and innovated to meet the challenges of their disrupted lives. Military experts were surprised that the spirits of the populations were not destroyed but actually rose to the occasion. The bombing tactic was a failure. What do you think of Rand’s view of the average man? Did she underestimate him? Should Willers have joined his friends in the Gulch?

Minsaas: I don’t think we should regard Eddie Willers simply as a symbol of Ayn Rand’s vision of the average man. Again, we have to consider his specific function in the novel. As I see it, the clue to Eddie is the image Ayn Rand paints of him as a captain going down with his ship. He is the man of absolute loyalty and commitment who chooses to perish rather than be saved. Ronald Merrill has suggested, rightly I think, that Ayn Rand was here thinking of men like her father who chose to stay in Soviet Russia in spite of having an opportunity to get out. They simply could not imagine beginning all over again in another world. …

Q: What do you think of the writers of the realist school such as Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, or Somerset Maugham? While Objectivists have panned them as not heroic, can it be argued that they give us heroes that inspire us for everyday life? While their characters are not shaking the world with their achievements, they are struggling with and finally facing very difficult inner dramas. For example in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams has his characters struggle with lies they have been living with and the agony it is causing them. In the end they overcome their fears and look at the truth. I find this very inspiring and heroic. Ayn Rand and Objectivism seem to look for heroes to build skyscrapers and slay pirates. Since all of us mostly live in the everyday, do you think this viewpoint is a shortcoming?

Minsaas: I think we must remember here that Ayn Rand did have room for everyday heroics, but it is something she reserved for minor characters. Cherryl Taggart, for example, is fighting a very heroic even if tragic battle to face up to the truth about James Taggart. So she could appreciate this kind of heroics. The problem is that she did not see it as fit material to carry the major plot of a novel. Of course, this was her privilege as far as her own writing was concerned. But it becomes a shortcoming when universalized into an esthetic principle binding on all literature, a norm that excludes the kinds of literature that you refer to where the prime focus is the inner struggle toward truth and self-acceptance that take place in more ordinary people. As consumers of art, we need different types of literature that can hold up to us different views of the world and of human existence, and that may serve different needs in different individuals in different situations and at different times. (Again I adopt what is essentially an Aristotelian viewpoint).

See the full interview for much more.

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