Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Humanity Is Not Synonymous With The Eye Pollution Of Commercialism

..though Randians, and many Libertarians, would like to think it is.

digamma cites an AP report from Thailand, admits that the Randian habit is to go too far with this sort of thing, then considers the quote and wonders if Objectivists have a point, then personalises the principle in question by imagining what insensitivities would be uttered if a precious Wal-Mart were to be leveled by a so-called act of God.

I can only speak for myself: If no one was hurt but the Wal-Mart building was a total loss, I'd say it's a great thing, and probably allow myself a facile comment about karma or that it would be evidence that God really exists.

Here's the passage digamma quotes:

01-07) 10:05 PST PATONG BEACH, Thailand (AP) –

Greg Ferrando glistened with sweat and sea water as he went for a barefoot jog up the immaculate white sand beach, where the tsunami has wiped away almost all signs of humanity.

“This whole area was littered with commercialism,” said the 43-year-old from Maui, Hawaii. “There were hundreds of beach chairs out here. I prefer the sand.”

Ferrando is like many who believe the tsunami that devastated this tourist hotspot and killed thousands had one positive side: By washing away rampant development, it returned the beaches to nature.

Now I'll admit that there is a nasty element betrayed in this, but it's not, as I think digamma assumes, an inherent nihilist tendency. Rather, what is betrayed is the designer-environmentalist attitude that is, ironically, more Randian in nature than not: the selfishness of certain people who want their own Private Idaho of pristine nature uncontaminated by the sharing of it with other humans. The tourist quoted is thus more philosophically related to wealthy golfers and to midieval barons with their private hunting grounds than to the anti-commercialist hippies and Wal-Mart haters whom Randians and Libertarians despise.

If one elides the "beach chairs" reference, however, what is left is entirely acceptable, even noble, because then the point of anti-commercialism is unsoiled.

It's been ten years at least since I've read Atlas Shrugged, but I do remember a vignette in it that gave away as much as any passage in her oeuvre the worms at work in Miss Rosenbaum's mind -- or should I say, soul. Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon journey to an abandoned factory in the boonies, which for some reason I remember being in Wisconsin. Immediately, the tone used to describe the background, the landscape, the natives, becomes vituperative: Nature is plainly awful, even ugly, when man has not manipulated it through industry and commerce; and the people who reside within this awful area are beyond backward: they are morally-stunted and subhuman. Talk about a filthy germ! This attitude is why Rand's heir, Dr. Peikoff, can casually recommmend a genocidal response to the "enemies of capitalism" just as gruesome as Adam Yoshida's, which at least has the excuse of being advanced by an ignorant sexually-frustrated twenty-something.

Moreover, there is a philosophical impasse here that Libertarians-Randians will always hold with Everyone Else, because of L-R's views on the resolute good of private property, and the resolute evil of public property. (There is also a technology/anti-technology dynamic at work, too, but I'll ignore that one for now.) National Parks, for instance, exist to preserve nature from commercialism and industry, as well as from those individuals who suffer so greatly from the Virtue of Selfishness that they wish to hold nature captive and hostage from other people -- all of which amount to a collage of sins in R-L eyes, from the tax money ("stolen", of course, by "looters") used to fund the upkeep of these parks; to the fact that they are unprofitable; to the "sad" state of their nature, nature itself, which is always man's enemy, to be conquered by "prosperity", industry, and (crass) consumerism; to the fact that the park is held by an entity, The People, and not by an individual (this last observation is hilarious when one considers that L-R's are inherently friendly to the corrupt legal decisions that have for years in America held the entity of The Corporation above all: individuals, The People, decency, humanity, etc -- plainly some entities are more equal than others).

At random, here is an excerpt of a review of Blue Latitudes, a book, more or less, about Captain Cook, the Columbus of the Pacific, which I quote just to point to the generic assumption that most people have of nature (and indigenous, "primitive" societies) and how they are in fact in conflict with Randian-Libertarian (and I should add, neo-liberal globalist) articles of faith:

At sea, aboard a replica of Cook's ship, he works atop a hundred-foot mast, sleeps in a narrow hammock, and recaptures the rum-and-lash world of eighteenth-century seafaring. On land, he meets native people -- Aboriginal and Aleut elders, Maori gang members, the king of Tonga -- for whom Cook is alternately a heroic navigator and a villain who brought syphilis, guns, and greed to the unspoiled Pacific.

(My Emphasis.)

For L-R's, greed of course is a virtue, though it's usually couched in the euphemism "self-interest", and naturally embellished with a false, or delusional, tone of underdoggery and persecution. Then there is the other word, "unspoiled". Now I have no illusions about the state of pre-contact chiefdom societies in the Pacific, which were violent, often horribly so. But neither do I have any illusions that L-R commercialism, even in its primitive seventeenth and eighteenth century form, ameliorated these tendencies: in fact, it exacerbated them, for instance in Hawaii, where the rosewood trade actually strengthened the hand of the worst of the chieftains, and of course added the entirely new evil of over-harvesting, so much so that the trees nearly became extinct. Normal people unselfconsciously use "unspoiled" to describe nature blessedly free not of people, but of eye and soul pollution like billboards and Wal-Marts -- or a forest of stumps.

If it seems that I have deviated from my point, I have not. Notice that the reviewer, echoing the common view, at least acknowledges the loss suffered by nature and natives, and that there is obviously something polluting and destructive in the concept of rampant commercialism. On the other hand, L-R's -- especially the latter -- assume, with a self-righteousness that would do Falwell justice, that their anti-nature, commercialism uber alles philosophy is always a wholesale good (though neo-libs are refined enough to acknowledge initial difficulties, hence their coinage of the eupehmism "shock-therapy"), is superior to that which it conquers, be it the indigenous populace, political institutions, or nature itself. Show them a beautiful view and they will immediately plan on "development" (just as they will, when presented with an economically-closed country that has acted with self-determination and loyalty to its own citizens first and foremost, immediately fumble with the locks, using tools like the WTO and diplomatic billyclubs, and then, of course, guns and "Free Trade Agreements"), while normal people might just want to save it as is. Normal people are not anti-human, neither are they necessarily hippie communists, nor are they, necessarily, "spiritual". What they are is, in Star Trek parlance, anti-Borg, and when they consider that most of the world is polluted both literally and aesthetically by crassness and greed, wish to save at least some things, places, and, yes, people from being unwillingly assimilated -- through coercion, bribery, or outright conquest -- into the hive-culture.

--Bonus link, tangentally related to the post: Apparently, these people made it through the tsunami, and good for them and their society. Of course there are no demolished tourist traps to mourn over, so Randians can easily refrain from pity. Via Hyperion Court.

*Made a quick revision to smooth my argument.