(Monday’s) comic book edition

The Code is dead, to begin with. Watchmen (DC) is awesome, a near-Orwell experience. On comics historical curios and intellectual drifts. Here goes.

Vol. 1 – That other 50s scare and all

Somewhere somehow I picked up the Comics Code Authority story. It goes like this: The rise of mass-media in early 50s saw a creeping moral panic against the more “graphic” content of comic books (think horror, violence and the like). In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the supposedly detrimental influence of comic books, taking into account speculative, biased evidence. The emerging threat of government regulation prompted the creation of the Code by the comic publishers, so that they could check content themselves. The self-censoring initiative could use some tuning: It was overly strict, shaking-up and aggressively downsizing the industry. Thus, a government “nudge” led to a private sector (over)reaction, with ill effects. The sector, however, adapted and continued, underground or otherwise.

*The* seal – source

Ironically, it was another government nod that galvanized a Code overhaul in 1971, as the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee of Marvel to incorporate an anti-drugs storyline in Amazing Spiderman. The arc proceeded without CCA approval in mid-1971 (funnily, just before the international monetary system entered turmoil). And it was in 1973 (say hello to the first oil crisis) that the depiction of murder in a popular comic book (Amazing Spiderman, again) marked the passage from the campy superheroes of the Silver Age (c. 1956 – 1970) to a more diverse and socially attuned bunch in the Bronze Age (c. 1970 – 1985). As the disillusionment of the 70s gave its place to cynicism in the 80s, so did the comic heroes matured, with works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The archetypes formed in the period (Dark Age, typically 1985-1996), grim and complex, redefined the genre and are still here today.

The Code was updated again in 1989, but failed to stay relevant in the face of increasing bypassing/ sidelining via new distribution methods (all hail the market in action). Just 20 years ago, Marvel abandoned it. 10 years later, in 2011, the last adherents, DC and Archie, finally desisted, too.

Vol. 2Randian Quests & Answers

Α couple of (relatively) fresh articles flashed from The Comics Journal:

Mysterious Travelers: Steve Ditko and the Search for a New Liberal Identity

How Ayn Rand Influenced Comic Books

Not an exactly nuanced analysis, the second one (it contains a few useful links though), but still, both presented things to consider. As it turns out, the co-creator (along with aforementioned Stan Lee) of f – Spiderman, Steve Ditko, endorsed objectivist ideals in early 60s (he even contributed a piece to Reason back in 1969). Here is another scholarly short paper on his impact:

“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be (PS: Political Science & Politics)

If mid-60s Peter Parker, “[c]old, arrogant, detached from the lives of others, but driven to follow his purpose and pursue higher ends”, seems objectivist enough, then the Question and Mr. A., Ditko’s creations in late 60s, are the real thing. These two were featured in smaller publications, and later provided the inspiration for Rorschach (Watchmen).

Fists will fly – source

The character was intended not only as a tribute to Ditko, but also as a stark criticism for randian convictions, meant to make a bad example of them. However, the controversial fictional zealot resonated (a bit too well perhaps) with the audience. Indeed, the character delivers some of the most memorable quotes ever, his unflinching crusade against the morally bankrupt (political class included) is iconic, and his damaged humanity invites some sympathy.

Depending on priors and inclinations, one can certainly discern smatterings of Rand’s ideas in Rorschach (“no gray”, believing in “a day’s work for a day’s pay”, among others). But I think that his trope could be assigned to other venues, too. For example, a fantasy aficionado will see a Paladin gone (very) wrong, maybe, or a casual will stick to the apparent right-wing leanings per se, and so on.

The other route of Rand influence is traced to Frank Miller and his Dark Knight take on Batman. The arc of a lone (capitalist) hero versus media-induced apathy and the corrupted establishment (and said establishment’s lapdog, Superman) has a libertarian facet, yes. I will get it (next week probably), read it and, then, return.

Some Monday Links

Ayn Rand, Live from Los Angeles (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Appropriation artists (VOXEU)

Adding is favored over subtracting in problem solving (Nature)

Some Tuesday links

  1. Lawyer for the strongman (from my vault, really good and touches upon an important legal aspect of interwar federal Germany)
  2. Burning bones (a “micro” view on a somewhat narrow matter – cremation of the dead, referring to my country! – but it touches upon human rights in a kind-of-weird way. Still interesting I think)
  3. I Have Come to Bury Ayn Rand” (A prominent evolutionary biologist slays the beast of Individualism)

Nightcap

  1. Driving alone, listening to talk radio Addison del Mastro, New Urbs
  2. My history of manual labor Tyler Cowen, MR
  3. My first year in the Covid lockdown Maria Farrell, Crooked Timber
  4. Biden finally called up Netanyahu Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  5. The Strastnoy of Ayn Rand Roderick T. Long, Policy of Truth
  6. Brand India Ravinder Kaur, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. Keep government out Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  2. Ending endless wars? Peter Henne, Duck of Minerva
  3. Atlas mugged, not shrugged Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. Twitter’s emergent order Andy Smarick, New Atlantis

Nightcap

  1. The iron wall versus the villa in the jungle Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  2. The pragmatic case for a unitary executive John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  3. Catholic Social Teaching in the West today Bernard Prusak, Commonweal
  4. Ayn Rand’s philosophy might be questionable – but what about her prose? Sam Leith, TLS

Feyerabend and the libertarians

I’ve still been reading through Feyerabend’s Against Method, and following along what Rick and Bill have to say about his arguments, but it’s slow going. Sometimes slow is better than fast, especially these days.

Awhile ago Irfan Khawaja, a philosopher who has been purged from at least one libertarian inner circle and blacklisted from several others, sent me a bunch of journals: Critical Review, Raritan, and New Left Review. (I still owe him for the postage. Holla at me Dr K!) These have been veritable gold mines of insider knowledge, and I came across a 1990 article by James McCawley in Critical Review that aptly sums up my own raw thoughts on Feyerabend. Namely, the question of Feyerabend’s own brand of politics. Was Feyerabend unwilling to accept political anarchism even though he was a methodological anarchist?

I still don’t have a solid answer to this question, though the evidence so far points to an affirmative. If he wasn’t a political anarchist, what was he? Certainly not a Stalinist, but my guess is that his politics wouldn’t have been as original as his philosophy. I suspect he was, at heart, a democratic socialist along with most of his peers.

One of the more insider-y aspects of the McCawley piece was Ayn Rand’s dislike of Feyerabend’s methodological anarchism. McCawley points out that Rand read and responded to an early piece of Feyerabend’s, and that if Rand had been a little more tolerant, she and Feyerabend could have some stimulating (though no less heated) exchanges over the years. Alas.

Nightcap

  1. Neglected works in intellectual history JHIBlog
  2. Is that you, John Galt? JD Mullane, Burlington County Times
  3. European law and the myth of English exceptionalism Michael Krauss, Law & Liberty
  4. Myths of sovereignty and British isolation Barry Stocker, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Democracy in America: Tocqueville v. Trump Harvey Mansfield, City Journal
  2. The tyranny of the “national interest” Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
  3. Ayn Rand had Asperger’s Syndrome Shanu Athiparambath, Veridici
  4. Autism and National Public Radio Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Ayn Rand and international politics Edwin van de Haar, NOL
  2. Seeing the Gothic in Notre Dame blaze Cynthia Houng, JHIBlog
  3. So let it be unwritten Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. The persistence of poverty Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

Nightcap

  1. Let us now turn to the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism David Gordon, Power & Market
  2. Why Sri Lanka? Vishal Arora, the Diplomat
  3. Sincere religious belief can still be plain old bigotry John Holbo, Crooked Timber
  4. The real “trap” created by two-earner culture Ross Douthat, New York Times

Nightcap

  1. Regional politics is restraining Kurdish militancy in Iran Fazel Hawramy, Al-Monitor
  2. Ignoring Ayn Rand won’t make her go away Skye Cleary, Aeon
  3. Culture and Institutions Alesina & Giuliano, Journal of Economic Literature
  4. Medieval Robots: Magic, Nature, and Art Dylan Cahn, Origins

Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.

In Praise of Academia

This week I got the happy news that my article on Ayn Rand’s views on international relations was accepted for publication. Once it is posted ‘online first’, I shall write a bit about its content. For now I would like to make a two other points, though.

One of the reason for my happiness is that this article took an exceptional time to get accepted. I started working on it in 2010, doing the initial reading (in this case all published works of Ayn Rand). The actual drafting started in 2011, I solicited commentary, and came to an acceptable first version in 2013. To be sure: I did not work on the paper on a full time basis, and there were many other distractions, not least my day time job, other academic projects, and family affairs. Still, the article kept nagging in the back of my head, perhaps not daily, but certainly on a weekly basis. I got the first few rejections by journals in 2013, then again a few in 2015, and another one this summer. So reason enough to be happy to get accepted and all the more exciting to see it through the production phase in the coming months, with actual printed publication still in the somewhat distant future.

I am not writing this to congratulate myself in public. My reason for this blog is to show young (aspiring) scholars, that it is completely normal to work on a project for ages, and to get rejected a few times. Yet the reward is sweet. As long as you persevere, are ready to change and edit your text, overcome your anger when you get unjust blind reviews (and believe me: writing on Rand regularly solicits angry, malicious and/or erroneous responses, also from editors and reviewers of high ranked reputed journals), and keep the faith in the possible value of your modest contribution to the world’s knowledge base.

This is a lesson I learned from experience in the past decade or so. But early on, I also greatly benefitted from one of the best and useful guides to PhD research and academic life I have ever come across: LSE professor Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD. It realistically describes what to expect of academic life, it’s ups and also it’s downs. So get it, if you are still unsure what to expect of academic life.

The other remark I would like to make is about the unique and open character of academic publishing. It is really great, as a part-time academic, to be able to get published in reputable journals. I am sure the editors of journals and presses are more keen to see academics from highly reputed universities submitting papers and book manuscripts. Yet they first and foremost value content. If you have something interesting to say, and live up to the academic standards, you will get the same chance and treatment as everybody else. That is pretty unique, compared to many other professions.

So: academia be praised!

Highly recommended work on Ayn Rand

Most scholarship on Ayn Rand has been of mediocre quality, according to Gregory Salmieri, the co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand, which is part of the series “Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.” The other co-editor of the volume is the late Allan Gotthelf, who died during it’s last preparatory stages.

The reasons for the poor scholarship are diverse. Of course Rand herself is a large element. She hardly ever participated in regular academic procedures, did not tolerate normal academic criticism on her work and strictly limited the number of people who could authoritatively ‘explain’ her Objectivist philosophy to herself and Nathaniel Branden. Before her death she appointed Leonard Peikoff as ‘literary heir’. She inspired fierce combat against the outside world among her closest followers, especially when others wrote about Rand in a way not to their liking. The result was that just a small circle of admirers wrote about her ideas, often in a non-critical way.

blog ayn rand

On the other hand, the ‘rest of the academy’ basically ignored her views, despite her continued popularity (especially in the US), her influence, particularly through her novels, and large sales, especially after the economic crisis of 2008. For sure, Objectivists remain a minority both inside and outside academia. Yet despite the strong disagreement with her ideas, it would still be normal to expect regular academic output by non-Randians on her work. Suffice it to point to the many obscure thinkers who have been elevated to the academic mainstream over the centuries. Yet Rand remains in the academic dark, the bias against her work is strong and influential. This said, there is a slight change visible. Some major presses have published books on Rand in the past years, with as prime examples the books by Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), and Anne C Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2010). And this volume is another point in case.

One of the strong points of The Blackwell Companion on Ayn Rand is that the contributions meet all regular academic standards, despite the fact that the volume originates from the Randian inner circle. It offers proper explanation and analysis of her ideas and normal engagement with outside criticism. The little direct attack on interpretations or alleged errors of others is left to the end notes, albeit sometimes extensively. Let us say, in friendly fashion, that it proves hard to get rid of old habits!

It should not detract from the extensive, detailed, clearly written and plainly good quality of the 18 chapters in this companion, divided in 8 parts, covering overall context, ethics and human nature, society, the foundations of Objectivism, philosophers and their effects, art and a coda on the hallmarks of Objectivism. The only disadvantage is the large number of references to her two main novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which makes some acquaintance with these tomes almost prerequisite for a great learning experience. Still, as a non-Randian doing work on her political ideas, I underline that this companion offers academically sound information and analysis about the full range of Rand’s ideas. So, go read it if you are interested in this fascinating thinker.