Elon Shrugged: An examination of Ayn Rand’s classic

“I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book was been written – and published – is my proof that they do.”

If you’re just after a review go here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/662.Atlas_Shrugged

So I finally read this piece – after hearing so much about it, and felt it required a lengthier analysis, obviously more political in focus so understandable if this isn’t some’s bread and butter, but I need a way to process the 1000+ pages I just read so here goes.

Its probably best to start with a bit of background and context. Ayn Rand was a highly influential but controversial writer and philosopher whose views are best summarized as being in extreme defence of the FREE part of free-market capitalism. Less often mentioned though is Rand was a strong atheist and claimed rationalism was the only thought of value.

While Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, its self-confessed and very much a thesis on Rand’s views, essentially being a cautionary tale of what would happen to the US and the world if her view of economics is not followed.

Rand’s influence continues to be huge, despite the intervening times the nature of many of her arguments and points are still made frequently in modern rhetoric. While I don’t necessarily think many people today directly reference Rand, it feels like I’ve seen most of her arguments already in some form in modern rhetoric.

What is Rand’s Philosophy?

I think this is best summed up by one of the key lines of John Galt, basically Rand’s superlative ideal man, who when forced by evil communistic government types to make a comment to the world while held at gunpoint says “stay the hell out of our way.”

Basically Rand’s economic belief is the virtue of selfishness – that the most ethical thing to do is allow men (always men of course more on that later) the freedom to pursue their work to the best of their abilities. Interference is inherently immoral because the most moral action is to perform your work selfishly to the best of your abilities.

Tending to people’s needs is unethical because needs to not denote earning – providing on the basis of needs is a effectively a death-spiral where economies collapse under a lack of achievement.

John Galt / Ayn Rand argue this creates progress in society as once the best men reach the peak of the pyramid they invent and advance with creations that benefit those ‘lower’ in the pyramid.

Does Rand back this up?

Rand engages in a form of argumentation which is she obviously didn’t invent and is woefully common in all circles – a form of ‘straw-hominem’ where all the characters who disagree with Rand’s views are ugly and decrepit, being fat is the most common technique Rand goes for – but sometimes also prematurely aged or dead-eyed. The MCs in Atlas Shrugged are effectively hewn from stone, slim but powerful and always with great posture (except for the times that the weight of the evil government’s policies get to them). The inferior types whine their arguments and often use vague assumptive language and are always portrayed as having ulterior motives. The MCs speak ‘plainly’ and simply and in heroic philosophic terms they always “destroy their opponents.”

Now you might thing this is a bit harsh – doesn’t most fiction tend towards hot heroes and ugly antagonists? But most fiction isn’t specifically written as a political thesis, and doesn’t genuinely contain political dialectics in every single ***** scene. Almost every moment of Atlas Shrugged has some form of political commentary, usually in the form of disgraceful weak arguments from inferior people about why unfettered capitalism is wrong with the superior MCs riffing on Rand’s basic premise that selfishness is virtue.

The frustrating thing is that these exchanges don’t actually contain rational arguments!! Despite Rand’s insistence that rationality is king, this book is filled with the sorts of debate points you find on any Reddit forum. When inferior whiners bring up actually good points (what about all the workers within your company), they are just hand waved away with various statements like “I am not entitled to the sweat of my brow.”

Rand’s claim to rationality is severely undermined by the use of this sort of rhetoric – although in fairness perhaps this is just the fictional fluff before the main event:

Ultimately the problem rests on Rand’s ultimate thesis – that not only is selfishness justifiable, it is in fact moral. That ‘need’ does not justify the ‘looting’ of others wealth. (as an aside one reason I saw that Rand argues unfairly is that she twists all taxation etc into being justified for the sake and “needs of the public good” in fact doesn’t even say ‘tax’ for 99% of the book despite claiming to be on the side of speaking plainly. What I’m saying is that rational arguments aren’t presented, scape-goat terms and implied motivations are debunked, this is the inherent problem with Straw-manning an argument, imagine if I criticized Rand’s work by saying she was arguing for ‘lawlessness’ for the rich, rather than discussing her actual philopsophy’)

ALRIGHT so what is Rand’s thesis – apologies if I mangle this, John Galt the ‘God’ of this story does a 3 hour speech explaining everything and I’m going to try and pull the key philosophical arguments from it:

“A being of volitional consciousness has not automatic course of behaviour needs a code of values to guide his actions” I Mean psychologically incorrect but in terms of a point that people are going to need a value system at some point yes

“Where there are no alternatives, no values are possible. There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence” Ok kinda intense but basically saying to live is better than not

“Man has no automatic code of survival…man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking.” This part is very long but basically saying, and I agree, people have to learn how to live in whatever context they exist in

“your own life is its purpose…. of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life.” yep look after yourself

“Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting of the motive and standard of death”

uuuuuhhh so this is when things start to get a bit unusual, basically Rand is conflating two ideas – yes if you should be selfishness enough to survive – does this mean that all selfishness is just? (no) does this mean any selflessness is death? (also no)

Rand tries to use this philosophy to justify rampart business success as simply being an extension of natural survival – and also uses an interesting equivalence to try and support this:

“There are two sides to every issues: one side is right and other is wrong: but the middle is always evil… the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth” What Rand is trying to do here is say that if you accept that basic survival is morally right you must accept it to all extremes, don’t be a delusional knave in the middle’

There is probably a lot to say about such arguments but its telling to me that there are barely any children featured in Atlas Shrugged, and John Galt’s argument exists as if people zap into creation as rational adults with a ‘right to survive’ inbuilt. I will say that there are many further analogies but this is the crux of Rand’s point – its moral to survive, your work is your survival so any extreme of achievement is your survival and just, any interference is attacking your survival and unjust. It would have been interesting to see what Rand actually thought was the appropriate way to manage children who need the support of adults to survive but then how this contradiction worked in her argument (look I already know it would have been as soon as the little **** were old enough to get to work they were on their own, their parents could choose to support them but support on the basis of need is theft/death.)

Of course Rand’s arguments are highly individualistic – however also justified by claiming that allowing ultra-capitalists the freedom they also drag society along with them, through their inventions and increase in industry. Here is what John Galt / Ayn Rand say about that!

“In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort hat his job requires of him”

Excuse me?

“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment.”

Hang on didn’t Rand say that’s what it’s all about anyway??

“The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.”

“Such is the pattern of ‘exploitation’ for which you have damned the strong.”

Ok, I’m going to level with you, the effect of typing out those quotes without suffering an ethical aneurism has almost ended me, and by Rand’s standards that means it immoral to continue.

AAAANYWAY

So Rand’s argument is basically work = survival, including ultra-success because ethics means rigid black/white thinking and extremism. But also the success of the ultra-rich actually benefits the plebes more anyway. But don’t those arguments kind of contradict, at least in the sense why is the pyramid argument needed as an individualist except to convince others to go along with the philosophy almost like Rand’s ultra-rich capitalists need people to go along with the plan (but of course NEED doesn’t justify interference right?) In fact the story supports this – even Rand’s ultra achievers need society to function.

General Rebuttal

As evidenced by the quote starting this piece, it seems obvious to me that Rand’s perspective can only function with the irrational belief that the ultra-successful are perfect men, in Atlas Shrugged there are no Harvey Weinstein’s, no petroleum companies spreading misinformation about climate change, and was well before cigarette’s were discovered to be deadly – it would be very interesting to see what Rand’s take of these scenarios would be (or horrifying).

Really the key problem with Rand’s political stance is that it effectively relies on ignoring too many factors. What about businesses that are harmful to the environment, to other people, the rise of ‘bullshit jobs.’

Funnily enough the most sound rebuttal of Rand’s stance comes from her own story. While the plot of Atlas Shrugged is supposed to describe the titanic effect of a weary Atlas tired of holding up the world, the reality is that the Ultra-successful MCs of the book are active terrorists, John Galt recruits successful people to remove them from society for the purpose of hastening its demise, Fransisco actively destroys his own company (of course its to own the libs, but wait don’t all the plebes benefit from his awesomeness what about them) Ragnar the reverse Robin Hood actively and violently pirates the globe “robbing the poor to give to the rich.”

So Rand tries to depict a world that falls over without the help of the Real Men(tm) but instead show us a world that falls over because the Real Men actively undermine it because they are butthurt about taxes.

Final thoughts

I’ve tried to focus on the more rational aspects of this thesis, but there are no doubt straight out offensive parts worthy of criticism – while uncommon, Rand makes racist and ableist slurs and I have no doubt that Atlas Shrugged as a work of mainstream fiction is the prettied up version of Rand’s thoughts. Like many Rand claims to be ‘rational’ and even titled her own philosophy ‘Objectivism’ but simply labelling things does not make them so A is not A just because you called it so, it seems to me that underlying every justification for capitalism is a horrific denigration of others and the real reasoning for support is the lack of caring what becomes of the vulnerable in pursuit of wealth.

There’s probably more to be said about Atlas Shrugged – however I feel this post has reached its natural limit – has anyone else read this book? Any thoughts – any disagreements?

On Writing: Managing Goldilocks Rules

Getting things juuuust right

This might seem like a bit of a left field topic for writing, however I find there is a common thread in writing questions that go a little something like “how much is too much sex/violence/rock’n’roll” and the answer typically being “how long is a piece of string.”

While Goldilocks isn’t typically, specifically brought up, I feel that its usually implicit in most writing advice: “not too much, not too little”. of course such advice is much easier to follow in a fairy tale where the middle ‘item’ is presented before the protagonist (I literally just realized the mild conundrum/illogical of the porridge, first of all mother’s porridge is medium sized, yet is the coldest.)

Anyway the point is that writers are often tasked with finding just the right amount of something, and sometimes I feel that there isn’t really much guidance or discussion about how to hit the sweet spot. To be fair I do believe there is an element of not necessary needing to hit the exact right spot all the time, but in a hyper-competitive publishing environment I feel there is some merit to thinking about this.

Clarity is Key

I’ve been a bit cheeky so far, haven’t really talking about what elements I actually mean. To explain better there can be any number of aspects or elements of a story that a writer wants to portray but isn’t sure how much. This could almost anything – however common issues are: how much/many terrible events for my MC are too many? How many sex scenes are appropriate? How angry/sad/brilliant should my character be?

What I’m trying to say is there are many parts of a story that will obviously be terrible if you overdo them, but they are significant parts of the story, no need to feature heavily or at least noticeably. I’m going to try and use random examples throughout to better clarify.

How to cook porridge

So I think first and foremost, as with any piece of writing you do need to consider the ‘why’: Why is my character angry – and I don’t mean what in the story made them angry – I mean what’s the purpose in the story of them being that way, is it for character development, is it a fatal flaw, is it to antagonize other characters.

Point is if you know why you’re writing about X you’ll have a better idea of how much of it you need in your story.

Variation

Probably the best lesson I learnt from an editor years ago is that anything within a story that doesn’t vary gets boring quickly. In this example I had an MC that had some anger and resentment, and basically every other character they interacting with was in an aggressive confrontational fashion. I of course had made the rookie mistake of assuming that ‘conflict’ meant conflict and so made my MC that way, but even within moments of hearing that advice I realized how much more interesting it became to mix it up a little. Without losing the character’s personality they became tight-lipped around their boss, short and angry with their brother, and pitied their father. The MC still obviously had a lot to work out but they weren’t shouting at everyone now! (my story still sucks btw but I learnt a lot)

The simplest way to challenge the above is to check whether anything in your work is getting repetitive. Obviously there are sequences and actions that are going to repeat, but thematically and conflict-wise are the same things happening again and again?

The Law of Threes

One day I would like to write a whole post on this idea. For this topic lets just assume its a straight out law and not question anything about it. One face of the Law of Threes is that three instances of something happening established a pattern (that is often resolved by the fourth occurrence).

If I’m being a bit vague a practically example might be a question like ‘how many fight scenes between my hero and the villain should there be’. The rule of threes is a good fallback, its a tidy number for reader’s memories, it establishes patterns and if all else fails its a very ‘literary’ number.

This tends to lend itself more to specific scenes or events, but it works for abstract elements to, for example if you are wondering how to show a character trait you can devise three instances to show their trait. If you’re wondering how to show the world you are building is cold and harsh, have three events that depict this.

Colour-Coding

Ok to be honest I will probably never do this – and it touches on the previous two points already made! However a useful method of analysis is to colour code what is happening in your scenes. This gives you a very good way of visually seeing what your scenes are made up of. You can do this to assess how much description you have, how much dialogue, action and/or colour code other elements too!

I feel slightly fraudulent saying this idea even though I’d probably slack on it, but hey just because its not my cup of tea doesn’t mean its not for someone else.

Oh dear started to bit derailed there.

Anyway does anyone have some tips of their own? Does the post make sense?

Review: WrangleStone

Don’t try to Wrangle Stones!

Overall I actually have quite a lot to critique about this book, BUT its in that strange way that a decent read might leave you with a lot to say, rather than WrangleStone being a bad book. Its actually a very solid read with nothing particularly terrible about it!

So what was good about Wranglestone? The story was very vivid, very visually epic. I genuinely felt like I could see the frozen lake, and feel snow storms hitting me while reading the book. I also really like that they was a same-sex love story that was just ‘there’ the story didn’t make a big deal about it, nor did the characters either.

The plot was very tight, in fact this is sort of a half criticism which I’ll explain the negatives in a minute, but the book actually felt very movie-esque, I think it was the way scenes fit together and characterizations happened, often relying on visual descriptions and dialogue. Storywise the tale was probably more melodramatic than character focused in the sense that it was about the characters dealing with the conflict that the plot threw their way rather than deep character desires etc. Zombies sort of having had their zenith already its not that easy to pen an original story and I thought Wranglestone did the job.

Critiques:

Again, just a reminder I did like the book and thought it deserved a high rating, I just had a handful of nitpicks that stood out to me.

Back to the comment earlier – the story felt more like a movie to me than a novel which isn’t intrinsically a bad thing. It’s just that the emphasis seemed to be on action set-pieces rather than character development or character tensions – there seemed to be any number of scenes where dark shadows appeared out of the darkness, or people got grabbed out of nowhere. Many of the scenes would have made good cinema but seemed a bit silly or implausible when written down.

In terms of tone I found the book a little inconsistent. Again I think it would have worked on film where pacing is often quicker and you do get cuts between different scenes and moods thereof, but for example often in this story there would be these serious moments with horror movies vibes, then very quickly some jokes about characters BO or having long-johns wedging. I know that even in bleak moments people do still use humour but it often felt jarring.

Characterwise I felt there was a bit of reliance on broad strokes to establish minor characters, and one didn’t really feel much connection with anyone except the MCs Peter and Cooper. For example its suggested that Cooper’s father might have been abusive, but this thread doesn’t really go anywhere other than just to establish a general sense of who he is (I understand this is book 1 of 2 so perhaps next book?)

A final nitpick is that the ‘moral of the story’ was just a bit forced and cheesy, the suggestion being that the real zombie apocalypse was our behaviour towards each other. Ok it kinda makes sense but I generally don’t like spelt out moral messages!

SPOILER REVIEW – a bit more on the Moral/meaning

Plot summary

So the main plot point of WrangleStone is that after building up the setting as an isolated community in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Peter makes the discovery that ‘Pale Ones’ can still be ‘human’ the story doesn’t dive much into the science or magic behind this, but its reminds of the premise to I am Legend. Basically a main tension of the plot is what is Peter going to do now that he knows zombies can be people, given his whole community is structured around disposing of and generally hating on zombies.

Through various twists and turns, that I am not 100% sure I followed, it turns out that there was an intentional suppression of the knowledge that zombies could still be themselves in order to maintain political control, however then it turns out that most of the world does know that but Wranglestone doesn’t, but there are some members of Wranglestone who are aware, ANYWAY. The point is of course that human beings are quite bad and prejudiced and zombies act as a metaphor that hubris.

The theme is a bit clunky and obvious, as our main characters “flaw” is presented as being too trusting which does lead to him almost getting killed several times, but in the end is OK and its outright stated that if only the world were more like him, blah blah blah.

I guess my real problem with the theme though is not so much that there is political tension and disinformation about the zombie apocalypse (it’s something touched on in World-War Z but differently) its just a bit cringe to me to have a story about if only you give Zombies a chance you’ll see they are people too and having this be a metaphor or even a direct story about human prejudice. Of course the story isn’t saying that zombies are like the various groups of the world that experience prejudice and hate, but its not too far removed. It also feels kinda bad that some zombies stay human and others are still basically monsters, like as before seems almost like an argument for exceptionalism (e.g. I’m not zombist because I think some of them are “good ones”).

Possibly I’m being a bit harsh – WrangleStone is hardly the first story to use mythical creatures as ‘others’ its a semi-common sci-fi plot sometimes with aliens sometimes with AI. Probably I’m more rebelling against any message that is preached rather than ‘shown’ (the real Show-Don’t tell rule).

Review and (Spoiler-filled) Over-analysis: The Lamplighters

Come for the review – stay for the over-analysis

Okay first up – I always enjoy myself stories abut Lighthouses, and clearly I can’t be the only one. Secondly Stonex is a very cool surname!

As to the book – I must confess I’ve been mostly nostalgia reading fiction lately so I’m probably a bit positively biased to pick up a more recent book. The story of Lamplighters is divided up between 1972 when the three men disappeared and 1992 when a curious author investigates the event, largely told by the three wives left behind.

The narrative I would describe as a little strange, the perspective of the three women tends towards ‘stream of consciousness’ where we get a mix of history, opinion and perception drip-fed to us the reader to generate the mystery. In these moments there isn’t a lot of grounding prose, dialogue is rarely captioned, and descriptions are heavily in the POV of the character.

When back in 1972 we get 1st person POV from one of the men and we tend to get more visceral ‘lighthouse’ type imagery and experience. The overall experience is quite odd, sometimes disorientating but useful to keeping the mystery alive.

Obviously the main plot thread is the question of what happened to the 3 men, but Stonex does a good job exploring the many inner workings of the character’s lives – diving into themes about family, the past, guilt and truth. So on the one hand while I said the story’s main plot was obvious it actually kinda isn’t, in many ways this book as about everything except the exact reason the men disappeared.

While there are a couple of nail-biting and tense moments, I would say overall the story is more of a character study than a thriller, I see some other reviewers deducted points for this not being a more classic story structure.

Really I only have one beef with this story, and that is at times between the 6 characters across 2 times periods perspectives, it was sometimes hard to retain who was who and how all the characters interlinked. I think part of this was intentional to create a bit of a sense of being adrift, but in my opinion just a few clearer markers for each character could have been ideal – also it was almost impossible to keep track of minor characters properly as they’d often just be mentioned in passing and kinda up to the reader to be aware of their significance (or not).

Overall – happy with this one! Read on if you don’t mind spoilers and want a bit of over-analysis

SPOILER TERRITORY

Summary

So I won’t probably capture the whole book here, but just a quick summary to set the scene.

The story begins with a brief segment introducing the Main Character: The Maiden Lighthouse – a ‘tower’ lighthouse, one of those ones that literally sticks out of the rocks, with little more than a ‘donut’ railing around the base, no separate cabins, or storage, the keepers have to sleep on bent bunk-beds.

Sorry, as to human characters we are introduced briefly to Vincent, Bill, and Arthur the 3 lighthouse keeper who we are told mysteriously disappeared that year details unknown.

Fast-forward to 1992 (8 years ago right??) and we are introduced to the wives of the men, Helen, Jenny, and Michelle. (as mentioned in the review at times its hard to keep track of the matches and mismatches so if I get something wrong please forgive). The Women’s stories are kickstarted by the appearance of “Dan Sharp” an author who wants to investigate the disappearance and write a story about it.

While the obvious plot thread would be information about the disappearance the actual story here is about the past, and the characters responses and ways of dealing with past loss and trauma. As the story progresses we learn that Helen and Arthur lost a son at sea, Arthur filled with guilt and depression buries himself in his work and the Lighthouse. Bill’s mother died in childbirth and his father blamed and abused him for it, Bill’s perspective appears to be one of delusion and cynicism and he has an ‘affair’ of sorts with Helen. Vincent’s mother was an addict and he grew up on the wrong side of the law, prior to working at the Lighthouse he engaged in some particularly disturbing animal cruelty to punish a rival, and after leaving prison is both on the run from his own guilt and potential retaliation.

For the most part the women’s stories are about the impact of the loss of their husbands, but also their reactions to the above events.

From a literally perspective its an interesting juxtaposition of gender, having a thread about 3 men and another thread about 3 women – I don’t think its meant to be that explicit but there is a sense of contrast, the men in the story retreat into isolation and fall apart (more on that later) while the women attempt to move on with their lives.

In terms of the main mystery there are a number of red herrings, the official line is that Vincent a criminal must have killed the others, however we also have a mysterious visitor that may have been associated with Vincent’s rival, penultimately we are told that driven mad by grief Arthur killed the men and himself. The final reveal is in fact Bill did the deed, after half-heartedly not-rescuing Vince from accidently falling into the sea, Bill decides its OK to continue on this path and clubs Arthur, in Bill’s deluded mind still entertaining a life with Helen. Unfortunately for his plans Bill is (possibly) killed by the ghost of Arthur’s child.

However the final scene of the story which sees Dan Sharp’s manuscript thrown to the wind tells us that the mystery of the men’s disappearance its the relevant ending, its the resolution of trauma that we see the characters go through.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the story is we learn the author uses a pen name and their real identity is relevant. It turns out he is the son of the main boatman for the Lighthouse a minor character named Jory who barely features in the story. It’s a bit of a letdown because it doesn’t really add too much to the tale other than to just pummel the theme of past trauma.

Through the Women’s stories we find out about their own responses to the past of the men, but also how they’ve coped with the loss. Helen tells us that she didn’t really have an affair with Bill, other than a stray kiss but then she struggled to distance herself while he kept pursuing the affair. Jenny was very aware of the whole thing and suffering terribly poisoned some chocolates that she sent with Bill – unfortunately Vince ate the chocolates resulting in an illness that may have contributed to him falling into the sea. Michelle lives a complicated life, having remarried but still considers Vince the love of her life, and also fears losing the financial support of the company if she speaks up against their assessment that Vince likely killed the others.

The women are estranged from each other at the beginning of the book, but as they tell their stories they finally reconcile. All struggling with the past they each must get to a place where they tell the truth and accept their losses to do this.

In my opinion the story speaks to the effects of loss and trauma, how you can isolate and bury the past, or be open and reconnect. The men and the Lighthouse represent problematic ways of dealing with a dark past. Vincent tries to evade his history and it catches up with him, Bill is so deluded in his perspective he thinks he can murder his friend and be with his wife. Arthur is so torn up with guilt and grief he literally deteriorates mentally and physically.

The Women on the other hand, attempt to overcome their past through telling the truth and connecting with people. While not perfect, Jenny for example attempts to poison Bill rather than confronting him and ends up hurting Vince (a comment on spreading pain in revenge) she confesses all to her daughter who is both understanding and forgiving.

The destruction of Dan Sharp’s manuscript, after he allows Helen to decide the ending – its a slightly cheesy “it’s not about the ending but about the journey” type statement, but its a deeper comment on not necessarily being empowered to fabricate your own through, but to take hold of one’s own story and the relevance thereof. In some respects saying the important part was not how the men disappeared but that they did and what the women did after.

While some might have been disappointed that this story didn’t have a thrilling conclusion its an intriguing end nonetheless.

Has anyone else read the book? Would be intrigued to hear your take on it…

Review (Non-Fiction): This is Going to Hurt

Didn’t hurt me at all!

This is Going to Hurt is basically a serialized book of Dr Adam Kay’s experience as a Junior Doctor working for the NHS. The emphasis is on laughs, and there’s no doubt of Kay’s comedy chops / ability to awkwardly destroy the sanctity of a Doctor Consult.

Dark humour is a central theme of the book, both between Kay’s struggles of being overworked and the various difficult and at times mortal moments of his patients. I’m not a doctor but as a Psychologist who has also worked on-call hours in a social service I completely understand the struggles of ethical obligation while lack of sleep and an oddly careless system grind you down.

The writing style of This is Going to Hurt is very more-ish and easy to read despite the weight of some of the topics. Since this was published in 2017 and refers to the decade early its set long before Covid-19 hits and one can’t help but wonder about what the experience of Doctors nowadays is.

Off-Topic: Anti-Intellectualism

Or as I like to call it: Pro-Foolishness

tbh both these fellows look sus (the beefcake is supposed to look like the relatable working-man, who did NOT skip leg day.)

So for the past few years (for some unknown unfathomable reason) I’ve become increasingly concerned by, and wanting to learn more about Anti-Intellectualism (with a smidgen of irony I’m just going to say Anti-Int as a shorthand. Anti-Int is a political movement or ideology of undermining, opposing, or even persecuting ‘intellectual’ institutions, groups, and individuals associated with intellectualism, as in Universities, Academics, specialists, and experts, and sometimes media.

Why Tho?

The first question of my journey of understanding was: Just Why? Of any ideology you can have, why literally be opposed to smart people or the institutions associated with wisdom and teaching?

At first I thought perhaps it could just the net effect of politicians often being opposed to the suggestions or input of academics. For example see the Star Wars saga (not the movies this time) where the US government was convinced of the potential of a massive project of missile defence which could effectively render nuclear weapons obsolete. The primary problem was that the project was scientifically and technologically impossible. (There were also political issues of potentially destabilizing international relations but I’ll stay on topic).

The above is an issue of where Science conflicted with Politics, but its not exactly an example of Anti-Int, except not directly – (In my opinion the disregard of Scientific opinion and ultimately reality is Anti-Int)

Similar examples could be made in history where Religion has clashed with Science – specific conflicts aren’t necessarily Anti-Int. However a case could be made than many Religions engage in Anti-Int efforts to avoid undermining their own belief system.

So my research and reflection continued and I discovered that at its heart Anti-Int is in effect anti-accountability and in its extreme anti-reality. I hope I don’t have to explain why politicians or pernicious individuals might want to avoid accountability. In terms of anti-reality this might be harder to explain briefly, but there is a subset of narcissistic belief where people genuinely believe that there is no objective reality – there is simply the will or perception of the powerful (and of course the narcissist is most powerful) who impose their reality on the rest of the world. If this seems a bit far-fetched, consider that this is the psychology of many dictators and cult-leaders.

For the sake of all our sanities I’ll focus on the accountability explanation for most of this Anti-Int discussion.

If you’re wondering how Anti-Int is anti-accountability, consider that Academics are often the source of general scepticism and criticism especially of governments, large institutions, culture and societal systems. The same could be said of the Media – technically media gets its own sort of attention in politics in discussions around Free-Press, unsurprisingly Anti-Int and media-silencing efforts almost always go hand in hand.

Because Academics and Experts are typically smaller in population and don’t hold much direct power, the immediate cost of being ‘anti’ is usually not high. Discrediting and undermining intellectualism is not usually seen as offensive, nor typically upsetting to a large enough population to lose political power.

So how does it work?

I was kinda disturbed when I did some reading, because I’d forgotten that part of school where they teach you about authoritarian regimes that literally murdered and persecuted intellectuals. Its not my intention with this blog to list all the specific crimes and which regimes did such things (although a brief mention of Nazi Germany is necessary) however it was and still can be very common in authoritarian regimes to engage in violence and persecution towards academics and experts. Techniques range from straight up murder, intimidation, scholastic terrorism (engaging in prejudiced rhetoric which encouraged vigilante violence) specifically targeting the educated among known political opponents.

Fascist ideology such as Nazi Germany engaged in a slightly different form of Anti-Int where Academia was co-opted into supporting the regime. Scientific endeavours where encouraged if they benefited and suppressed if they did not.

Also in a move which will move us into modern democratic Anti-Intellectual Nazi Fascists were skilled at weaponizing conspiracy theories to prop up the regime. Like me, you might ask ‘How does that help?’ So here’s the method – firstly embracing and encouraging unfounded and unsupported claims within the population primes people for intentional propaganda and misinformation. If you try and lie to a population that demands a modicum of evidence you might be in trouble. Also by embracing conspiracies, you create a kind of ‘free-market’ of ideas that allows you to literally pick and choose what you say based on what people have generally accepted already – for a recent example Russia started to claim there were chemical-weapon plants in the Ukraine after conspiracy theorists globally started positing the theory and it was getting popular, of course this was after the Ukraine was already invaded and this had never been mentioned before the invasion.

Finally embracing conspiracy theories allowed the Reich to adroitly engage in their own ‘double-think’ and deflect any criticism as a conspiracy theory, a much more believable claim if the population is already rife with conspiracy.

What’s the relevance now?

If you’re reading this it probably means that you have noticed or considered this issue in 2022 and even among democratic nations (which are not supposed to be fascists generally) there are threads in the discourse and sometimes even it seems entire countries embracing Anti-Int.

Of course we haven’t seen professors and experts getting attacked or killed, but we have as mentioned above seen an increase in the adoption and promotion of conspiracy theories. Also as mentioned attempts to undermine media have become common and accepted.

Other Anti-Int propaganda has included:

  • The decrying, mockery, or broad stereotyping of Academics and Experts or even just critical thinking. Think comments about ‘The-Elite’ suggesting that they don’t have your best interests at heart. Or avoiding engaging in actual substance of arguments just saying people are brainwashed, or ‘sheeple’
  • Spreading of anti-education conspiracy theories – such as educators have ‘Leftist’ biases or even are part of ‘Leftist Agendas’. (even more atrociously calling teachers “groomers”)
  • The degradation of rhetoric, using argumentation that encourages un-sceptical and non-critical thinking e.g. “Just imagine if only some of these accusations are true how bad this would be.” Ad-hominin arguments that specifically discourage critical thinking “Nit-picking critics, ivory tower policy-wonks, soft/weak academics”
  • Generally not engaging with integrity, e.g attempting to rewrite history, politicians/public figures not taking responsibility for own statements

Here’s an example (really wish I didn’t have to scroll his feed to find these e.g.s)

There is a bit more than just Anti-Intellectualism going on above, but its a great example of a style of rhetoric which simply lacks integrity and trades critical thinking for ‘hot-takes’ and snarky ad-hominin argument. The example would have also been slightly more powerful if Elon was attacking an expert/academic rather than just Democrats…

Oh wait….

This is the perfect example of rather than say, writing an article (or getting an expert employee to write one) explaining that there appeared to be some sort of bias in how ESG scores are determined. This article then could be debated and discussed rationally, instead a simple meme is posted with, if you think about it for a second, obvious bias which is probably going to make any expert who attempts to debunk this tweet look petty and strange themselves “You’re just triggered about getting owned Lib” = Anti-intellectualism!

To generalize my rant out further Anti-Int has had impacts in obvious areas such as the global Covid-19 response, Climate Change, and human rights (to say the least). Anti-Intellectual propaganda is worse than just a cunning way to avoid accountability and criticism, as a side or sometimes intended effect it undermines processes that save lives, create progress, and generally make the world a better place.

To conclude I want to make one final point – one might think that Anti-Intellectualism could be a natural, or authentic movement of a population against experts, but I would counter that this is almost logically impossible. Yes people may have a naturally developed Anti-Intellectual attitude, possibly due to bad experiences or an aversion to what their perception of academics are. Maybe even said individuals are on the rise and have a bit of natural grouping together…

BUT, in order to organize, to co-ordinate messages and generally have an Anti-Intellectual movement there almost by definition needs to be some sort of formal co-ordination (by someone or someones with intelligence it turns out). Check out this article which explains that Covid misinformation was largely spread by just 12 individuals.

What I’m saying is that a population can have a generally negative perspective or opinion of ‘intellectuals’ however this doesn’t translate into a specifically Anti-Intellectual movement without some form of intention and plan. While people might come to their own decision to be cynical of intellectualism, no-one just happens to organize and engage in anti-intellectualism which is specifically undermining the concept without someone having an agenda.

So – that’s my essay on Pro-Foolishness. I’m wondering what your thoughts on the matter are? Do you have any examples of Anti-Intellectual rhetoric or political action? Do you think I’ve missed the mark? Any other random comments?

Review (Non-Fiction): The Dictator’s Handbook

How am I not a Dictator yet??

So continuing my journey to become a cult-leader and/or dictator I stumbled across this handbook while picking up some other pieces and gave a look – pretty happy that I did so, while I am not in fact an autocratic tyrant yet due to some pesky morals (or perhaps just opportunity) its actually a pretty dense educational book on the topic of politics and well worth a read.

I’m actually going to get my only criticism out of the way first – its more of a drawback type complaint, but the amount of detail and knowledge in this book is encyclopaedic, like right from page one there is thorough information on everypoint, and throughout the book often many examples to back up each point. From an academic point of view obviously this is very good, but I did just feel at times overwhelmed with facts and details that my poor working memory could not maintain (maybe that’s why I’m not a dictator yet).

Depending on your reading preferences that above point might not even be a criticism! I just think its worth noting that this probably isn’t a fun/light-hearted personal touch type work on non-fiction, despite the funny title its pretty serious and precise.

Onto the actual material, the title is possibly a little misleading as the book isn’t so much about how powerful unethical politics is, it’s more of an overall examination of political power, corruption, and how it all interacts. For example there is just as much analysis of democracies as dictatorships, and even a brief dive into Public Companies which was an unexpected but very useful tangent!

The chapters of the Handbook are fairly intuitive for the subject – covering how people gain power, maintain power, lose it, the effects of warfare, foreign aid and capping the whole thing with some ideas for improvement.

Probably my favourite insights were some unusual factoids:

  • The more autocratic/unequal in power a country is the straighter the roads tend to be between the capital and the airport, and/or other centres that the leader travels. (this is because dictators would put resources towards roads that help themselves and are more likely to force individuals to move. Democracies have winding roads!)
  • Many of history’s revolutions have succeed because the leadership ran out of money to pay their army, so the army didn’t bother to defend them (or did the revolution themselves)
  • Dictators often encourage corruption through underfunding and then use threats of exposure to control institutions (e.g. police force) this allows ‘cheap’ services and a mechanism of control.
  • CEOs are likely overpaid due to their interconnections and power dynamic with the boards they are supposed to be accountable to (e.g. CEOs often select board–members or manage changes, and/or have external connections – plus there is often little incentive for a board to ethically set the CEO wages as there is no direct benefit to them)

All in all this book was super interesting in terms of understanding politics from a more global perspective, I appreciated the author’s neutral tone and well explained and documented information, they even addressed the challenge of not being about to do randomized control trials in politics!

While the depth of detail did make the reading a little slow and at times overwhelming it was a vital read!

Review: Eric (Discworld)

Shortish, Funnish, Rincewindyish

Eric is a strange Discworld instalment. It feels a lot like after the last couple of Discworld’s being a little heavier and longer maybe Sir Terry just wanted to blow off a bit of steam with a humorous jaunt (man I really wish Terry Pratchett was still alive and did some sort of book-by-book retrospective).

Rincewind returns in Eric in quite epic fashion, and the main plot of the story is an interesting subversion of Faust – where ‘Eric’ makes three wishes of Rincewind and we see Pratchett’s take on these. It’s hard to say much more without big spoilers but basically we see a lot of puns and literal twists on Eric’s wishes, all the while a Demon-King attempts to catch up to the duo.

At just over 100 pages long Eric is closer to a Novella than a novel, but I didn’t mind this I think the style of story lent itself to something shorter, I suspect that sustaining a whole novel on jokes would have gotten old quick.

Something a little funny to note is I feel like this book was somewhat edgier in humour than other books, which is partly why I wonder if Pratchett was blowing off steam or something. There’s a lot of innuendo which is of course not absent from other books but just seemed a bit more in Eric.

Not much else to say about this instalment, I wonder if it was largely written as an explanation to get Rincewind back as while I have no sauce for this it seems at the time Rincewind was a bit of a fan favourite and was essentially left for dead in his last book – and fans were bothered.

On Writing: “Faceless Hordes”

What’s your stance on “Faceless Hordes”

Well not necessarily faceless – just well, maybe faceless would be an improvment

I’m not actually diving into the issue of Are Fantasy Races Racist but if you want a great video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfGbSnGObbU&ab_channel=Vaush

Just wanted to riff briefly on the trope of faceless hordes of enemies, very common in the Epic Fantasy genre but as many have noted almost a stable of the MCU Avengers movies (aliens, robots, aliens again). Also it could be debated that the dispatch of any number of henchpeople in various action films could fit under this trope.

Now just to reassure everyone I’m not going to, like, dive deep into why this is so bad or \ making jokes about this technique in writing, I think its a fine writing technique in general but I want to talk about a random couple of points about whether its problematic OR actually pretty OK in implication.

This is Fine

To further clarify an earlier point there are many MCU and other superhero films that contain some sort of faceless army of samey humanoids or creatures that the heroes have to battle hordes of and/or substantial bunches of henchpeople type situation. In the first Avengers movie it was aliens in the second robots. I think as a trope it has many uses, adding general tension to a scene, showcasing the battle prowess of our heroes and also creating a bit of vindictive catharsis for the audience.

Something similar happens in many Fantasy (and I’m sure some other genres) where the ‘evil’ army is composed of some sort of dehumanized horde. Funnily enough this was very prominent in Lord of the Rings which kinda gave orc’s actual character and existences but didn’t really go beyond like typical bad-guy stereotypes I don’t think it was really clarifies whether these guys actually had a society or what, but in the world they were definitely intended to be evil hordes. It’s just kinda awkward really that most fantasy since then has developed Orcs beyond this (see Warcraft) so they are no longer really a faceless horde race. These days some other bestial creature, often the Undead or Demonic creatures are used to create hordes that no-one feels too concerned about slaughtering on mass.

So my first argument is that as a trope this is not too problematic in fact by purposefully creating a dehumanized army this trope ensures that no real-life group feels targeted, either by implication or (hopefully more historically) sometimes directly.

That’s a yikes for me dawg

Just to emphasize my point I’m going to bring up the movie 300. Now just to be clear I love this film, its intense, fun, dramatic, even quite sad. But I also have no problem stating that this film is racist, ablest, fetishizing, toxically masculine and I’m going to put it out there probably has other issues that I’m not aware of.

Now the purpose of this post isn’t to dig into this (would be quite happy to do so if anyone actually wanted but I feel that ground is well trod), what I do want to do is make a point that I think its totally acceptable to want some sort of story like 300s where heroic character slaughter thousands in dramatic ways what the trope of faceless hordes does is allow that to happy by reduced the problematic parts!

Even if you don’t care about the various social implications of story violence, I think you’d agree that it also removes the general ethical concerns of mass violence and death and also helps codify the heroes of a story as the actual heroes.

On the other hand

Every said above, I do worry that the faceless horde trope can actually do the opposite of what I said. When it comes to problematic interactions basically the worst thing that can happen is people of a particular group or who are different from the observer is to become dehumanized.

Dehumanization has a few features, unfortunately all of which are present in faceless horde tropes, e.g. not seeing people as people, interpreting their behaviour as a mass horde, and obviously not seeing them as worthy of the human right not to be dismembered and destroyed by Captain America’s shield.

What I’m saying is that perhaps using sort of PRE dehumanized enemies may circumvent problematic thinking OR is it just prepackaged.

I suspect as I write this (slight tangent but one reason I blog is that as I put things into words I realized stuff along the way that I never would have) that the real important part is in the details.

For an example In Scott Bakker’s fantasy series the sort of hordy enemy are monsters called Sranc. They are technically sentient and have a bit of language and tool use (largely weapons) but for the most part they are depicted as multitudes of snake monsters available for combat. Any depiction or development of the creatures is usually animalistic, e.g. showing they reproduce via laying eggs, so it would be very hard to assume that these creatures represent any group of people, whether racial, national, or political. This is also set in a pretty intense world with plenty of other potential social discussion points so I don’t think the hordes representing anyone is the issue.

IF you want some TVTropes (internet black hole warning) the sorts of tropes I’ve been talking about are listed as:

Faceless Goons

Hordes from the East

and 😀 Mooks

I’d be interested to hear others thoughts on the matter – where do your preferences sit?

On Writing: Endings and Catharsis

After analysing and over-analysing the recently finished Netflix Series Ozark I’ve been stewing on Endings a wee bit, and the link between Endings and catharsis.

So obviously there is lots going on in Endings, there are whole books out there (actually I take that back a very quick search tells me there aren’t actually that many! Niche opportunity anyone?).

Anyways back on track, a lot of people didn’t much like the ending of Ozark and I think one of the reasons is that it didn’t really have any cathartic elements, the events of the show kinda just came together and ‘happened’ without a sense of strong emotion.

To explain a bit further catharsis is generally assumed to be an important part of fiction – catharsis is an emotional release that provides a sense of relief. Outside of fiction its usually used as more of a stress/anger/grief expression type situation, but within fiction I think it can apply across the emotional spectrum.

How does it apply to stories?

Catharsis has a relationship to Tension, which funnily enough as I write this I realize that many teachers focus a lot on tension building and seem to assume that once this is achieved the release part is a given. So basically tension can be built many ways and at some point is the story is released with a resolution, this doesn’t have to be the end of the story, in fact often the best stories have a dynamic mix of tensions that co-occur throughout the story with usually a major plot resolution being the official climax.

It seems to be that what isn’t as often discussed in the emotional side to this process. Tension can be built many different ways, physical danger, relationship uncertainty, mysteries. How that happens in story and how that tension is resolved creates different cathartic effects which is what I’m going to spend the rest of this post discussing – I’m not going to list all the different emotions that one might feel reading a story, but rather the different patterns of resolution with perhaps some examples feelings along the way.

Happy Endings

Many people would probably describe a happy ending as one where the Main Character(s) have and get nice things. Which is true, but my thoughts are that happy endings are also achieved when the story is resolved in a way which feels ‘correct’ or more specifically characters get what they deserve.

I think there are two ways this relates to endings, and probably many stories include a portion of both. It usually entails a villain or antagonist getting punished, and a hero or protagonist getting what they wanted. This may sound very simplistic, however the bit that I’m building on here is that the tension and resolution should fit together snugly to help create this effect.

An example of where this doesn’t work is any action related genre where the hero has obvious “Plot Armour” because Plot Armour removes any sense of fear for the character, a happy ending has no catharsis so doesn’t satisfy.

Another example where this tends to fail is when in a Romance story (because I’ve been reading so many lately LOL) the writer adds a DANGER plotline to shove the love story towards its inevitable (you know what I’m talking about) conclusion – but it often feels a bit silly because the physical fear tension is resolved into relationship success?? I know many people don’t like relationship plotlines predicated on simple misunderstandings but the sort of tension created (frustration etc) fits well with a romance style ending.

I don’t know this I’ve explained this very well but what I think I’m getting at is that a ‘happy ending’ really hits home if the emotional beats for the tension and resolution match well and line up with how we want the story to end.

Unhappy Endings

If we continue with the same framework I think this has interesting implications for unhappy or bittersweet endings. Resolution still matters here, as there is still an ending in place but its typically not what we OR the characters want. In terms of the match or mismatch of tension and resolution I think what makes an unhappy ending is one where the resolution still occurs but in an unexpected or unpredictable way – one what notably might still contain an ounce of tension.

This is the ‘at great cost’ type ending or the last minute relationship fail, or even the twist ending. The important part is that there is still catharsis -that is some sort of significant resolution, its just not the obvious one. I think this the key to an ambiguous or open ending too, ensuring that there is something emotionally resolved even if there is some sort of openness to the tale.

To round up, and clarity a little, my theorem is pushing a little beyond tension and resolution – tension in stories can be resolved many, many different ways. We’re often told to make stories all about the MC however this doesn’t mean every tension resolution throughout a story needs to be through their action, in fact it makes sense to try and vary different resolutions and save the MC solving for the main climax. So when this does happen its important to consider what the emotional effect is going to be, have readers been reading in fear of the Dark Lord the whole, book? It’s going to be nice when the MC stabs them. Has Ross been severely immature season after season, its going to be a relief when he is just honest to himself and Rachel.

Not to bang on about a point but how silly would it be if on the last episode of Friends Rachel gets kidnapped and upon being saved Ross and Rachel thusly decided to cement their relationship?? You’d have no satisfaction of their actual relationship being resolved at all. This is also why Magic can be SUCH a risky trope in fantasy, solving problems without the payoff isn’t just lazy plotting, but also emotionally unsatisfying.

So bit of a different take today – not sure I explained it very well but I like the theory. It ties into musical theory a little bit which I often use to understand writing principles, but I often forget that not everyone is thinking that way so have troubles explaining myself!

Take care out there – as always keen to hear thoughts or examples.