Tonight is New Year’s Eve, and the universal basis for rectifying wrongs rests in making long-term, significant changes in life. The problems that truly plague people are so significant that it is easier to fall back onto a default position of “letting things go” rather than acting to fully alter the problem’s source. Yet there is still a desire to pursue certain goals, hold certain people to a higher level of importance than others, and maintain a standard of living that satisfies some norm of happiness. In this regard, individuals appear to strive for what Ayn Rand defined as “good” values—namely, ones that advance self-interest such that rational moral principles sustain a person’s life and enable them to pursue their own happiness.
At what point is there a significant transformation in an individual’s life that enables them to fully rectify their imperfections? Whether it’s altering bad habits or completely reconstructing an attitude, the big question seems to be, “can such a change ever be possible?” A follow-up to that question is “maybe, but at what price?” Here I lay out my thoughts on what it means to strive for the “good” and how the term has been reassigned incorrectly to principles that define the opposite. History and culture is rich with a fascination in metamorphosis, but also with the notion of power as a necessary element of that change in individuals and collective entities. I argue that the liberal, left-wing assignment of “empowering” the collective necessitates social control and a pursuit of destructive “values”, while the right-wing, American-conservative version of Enlightenment principles requires an individual pursuit of self-interest that protects life and liberty.
In a class I took as an undergraduate, I studied an arrangement of Greek and Roman literature as a supplement to my Latin scholarship. In the process of considering the ideological relevance of “change” for this analysis of good and evil, I restudied the short stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (in the Humphries translation) to determine the alleged source of “change”, the reasons for the change, and the underlying definition of humanity in terms of freedom or tyranny.
As I expected, the stories indicate that the imposition of a person’s power onto someone else, or themselves, is justified as all that necessitates a significant transformation. Whether the reason for the change is a punishment given from a god to a human, or as a means of escape from a pursuer, the transformation encompasses a significant alteration in social status that is permanent and unchangeable. In the story of Daphne and Apollo, for example, the maiden Daphne transforms into a tree as she runs in fear from Apollo, who means to rape her. Her will is imposed onto her own condition and results in a fundamental change from a human to a plant, such that Apollo cannot obtain from her that which he could only get from a human woman. Ovid’s stories focus on the reassignment of identity and existence changed at a moment’s notice by the imposition of power—whether by themselves, or by others—and ends with an explanation of meaning: the reason for the laurel’s existence, Apollo’s friend Hyacinthus transformed into the hyacinth flower, the transformation of people into certain rivers and creatures that appear immutable in nature.
The ultimate end therefore seems to define power as a tool for transformation, and the change as a fateful explanation of meaning and purpose for an individual’s existence. Under this view of life, striving for values appears to be insignificant, because the ultimate purpose of someone’s existence is pre-determined and pre-made, rather than something that must be produced over time by the individual. Indeed, in the Creation, Ovid describes existence as being chaotic, unorganized, “shapeless mater”1 before Nature organized reality so that things were segregated and given a privately fixed existence. Social planning here defines the meaning of an individual’s life, rather than any values a person develops for their own lifelong pursuit of happiness.
Ayn Rand’s definition of good values stands in complete opposition to social planning; good values are not collective, but have a necessarily individualistic quality. A value, as defined to mean a goal of self-interest (which includes a love of friends and family, ideas, work, etc.), must be produced by an individual to have any lasting significance for their own life—and an environment of maximized liberty enables this pursuit and productivity in individuals. If the meaning of good were to be defined as a collective goal, the pursuit of happiness becomes redefined to clash with every individual’s differing aspirations for that happiness. A person who imposes their power onto others is therefore a tyrant, for the simple reason that they must consider themselves entitled to overriding the existence and life of someone else, even when they hold their own life to a double standard. Such a person is necessarily capable of, and complicit, with the same thinking required in murder.
From this reasoning, it follows that dictatorships aren’t hotbeds of brutal genocide without explanation. What “values” justified for social planners and dictators the desire to purge humanity and expunge from existence the people who oppose their authority? The naïve psychoanalysis of “insecurity”, “hate” and “male inferiority compensation” among pundits is ridiculous in this light—dictators commit these atrocities for a purpose that they defined to be complicit with “good” collective values. For example, Progressives in America and Europe lauded the idea of eugenics as a scientifically valid mechanism for advancing all of humanity, by utilizing state-defined norms of “good” to determine the proper changes for the betterment of collective society. The so-called “social Darwinists” were the conservatives opposed to eugenics, a name implying that without eugenics, in which some collective power picks winners and losers, the world falls back onto the natural Darwinian order of “survival of the fittest”, with people of different proclivities living at different standards.
In this regard, the definition of “good” on the Left is and has always been based on collective power. Hitler’s propaganda artist Joseph Goebbels made a point of stressing that “to be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.”2 The Nazi platform in 1920 emphasized that the “common good must come before self-interest.”4 (69), fascist Italy maintained that collective “unity” in the symbolic fasces trumps individualism, the Communist founder Karl Marx claimed “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” and Progressives openly advanced social engineering through such efforts as Prohibition and eugenics. Nazis and American Progressives applauded eugenics as a collective value of good for the resulting equalization of outcomes; in fact, Hitler’s love for the idea was derived from the American Progressives. While in prison, prior to any engagement in politics, Hitler wrote to the president of the American Eugenics Society—also known as the Society for the Control of Social Cancer—and requested a copy of the president’s book, “Case for Sterilization”4. Similarly, the influential Fabian socialist H.G. Wells emphasized eugenics as a necessary component of change for socialism: “Every improvement is provisional except the improvement of the race.” (220, New York: Duffield, 1910).
In lock-step with the Nazi purge of the “unfit”, Mona Charen notes in her book Useful Idiots that the Communist Khmer Rouge “eliminated the aged, the infirm, the mentally handicapped, and those of non-Khmer ancestry.”3 (62) In addition to purging previous information from the body politic with book burning (another Nazi trademark), the Khmer Rouge essentially placed a death warrant on any sign of “sophistication”, including multilingualism, eyeglasses, watches, and any marker of twentieth-century life outside of the Angkar (“the Organization”). Family bonds and friendship were also discouraged values under the Angkar, who expressly forced Cambodians to “renounce individualism”. Charen mentions a particular quote from a Khmer soldier, who tells a man trying to keep his son with him in the fields to “shed [his] illusions [of individualistic tendencies]”3 (63). This reasoning is perfectly taken from Karl Marx’s concept of false consciousness, in which he alleged that ideas of individuality and desires for certain social norms were merely psychological falsehoods. In Nazi Germany, Communist Cambodia, and Soviet Russia, the ultimate goal of dictatorship was clearly based upon an allegedly good collective value for the reformation of mankind, using methods of selective murder (i.e. eugenics).
The founder of the left-wing organization Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, similarly believed in the importance of eugenics in the grand scheme of discovering “meaning”, with a particularly disturbing emphasis on redefining and transforming the literal makeup of society. In her book Pivot of Civilization she lamented, “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.” (42, Amherst N.Y. Humanity Books, 2003). Clearly, her prescription for “planned parenthood” was limited by how the State would determine who should have children. The founder of America’s largest abortion provider also created the “Negro Project” in 1939, which she formulated as a means to keep birth control in black neighborhoods. The project’s report made its intent extremely clear: “The mass of significant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes….is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.”4(273) The collective goal of eugenics, as a means to elevate the human condition with an imposition of power over individuals, was obvious in Sanger’s intent to remove the offspring of the “unfit” from the population.
The eugenic idea of the American progressive past still lingers in modern causes such as environmentalism. While certain positions such as conservation are fairly apolitical, particular issues relevant to social planning and weighed decisions concerning human life are another matter. When DDT usage in malaria-ridden parts of Africa was being hotly contested, the former chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund, Charles Wurster, was interviewed on the matter. When told that banning DDT would probably result in millions of deaths, he replied “This is as good a way to get rid of them as any.”4 (383) The common trend among radical environmentalists is an open hatred for humanity, which they blame for every conceivable ill that plagues the planet, in addition to a clear contempt for human life in particular. Passionate proponents of the global warming idea are quick to associate every aspect of human development, life, and modernization with a disruption of some sacred natural order. From this fear springs modern environmental radicals who want to return to pre-industrial times and live “naturally” and “organically” before the taint of human sin began to destroy the planet.
The same contempt for the state of humanity can even be found in the current administration. President Obama’s former director of the Office of Science and Technology Program, John Holdren, co-authored the 1977 book Ecoscience with Paul & Anne Ehrlich, in which he reveals his serious consideration for forced sterilization. Grounding their judgment along the radical line of allegedly dangerous population growth, they write, “Several coercive proposals deserve discussion, mainly because some countries may ultimately resort to them unless current trends in birth rates are rapidly reversed by other means.” With this, they also supported the Indian government’s move to a compulsory sterilization program in the mid-70s—claiming it to be the “only available option” for rectifying the environmentalist issues of excess carbon dioxide and human waste. Holdren looked upon his critics while scratching his head: “adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control.” Instead of being repelled by the idea of destroying the reproductive organs of individuals without their knowledge, the authors instead reject the idea of sterilant-laced water because “…the risk of unforeseen side effects would, in our opinion mitigate against the use of any such agent…” Yes, because the problem isn’t forced sterilization, it’s the side effects! Take a moment to think about that logic6.
Mass murder over history was not due primarily to insanity, but rather a set of collective values that redefined the “good” to be “the good for society”. The transformation sought in eugenics and genocide was not done individually, for any pursuit of happiness, but to advance an agenda of collective power that has always been rooted in a spiritual sense of discovering a pre-made collective “meaning”. As the liberal philosopher G.W.F. Hegel emphasized in his book The Philosophy of History, the “State is the actually existing, realized moral life…The divine idea as it exists on earth…[A]ll worth which the human being possesses—all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State.” (87, New York: Collier & Son, 1902).
As a political justification for collective values, principles for “organizing” a transformation of state in social structure and character have been highlighted by the academically popularized “cult of unreason”, with primary philosophical influences in Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The transformation sought by the social planners focused on several aspects of “change”: violent agitation to crush das System and a fundamental shift in reasoning that redefines sources of power.
On one level, the violence inherent in dictatorships is a lauded necessity in fascist thought. The “cult of action” defined all manners of street-agitation as a proper usage of collective power. As noted in Jonah Goldberg’s analysis on the roots of fascism, “the avant garde fascists idealized violence as an end in itself, seeing it as ‘redemptive’ and ‘transformative’” (190). The call for blood and romanticized gangster life is commonly seen in modern politics, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the same mindset prevailed in the minds of dictators past and present.
The underlying justification for the violence is more than a desired reconstruction of an old generation, but rather a call for action that is necessarily derived from a spontaneous, artistically romanticized youthfulness of “unreason”. Michel Foucault in particular idealized the “sovereign enterprise of Unreason” to the extent that he justified the genocidal Iranian revolution of 1979 simply because it was committed against Enlightenment principles. The same usefulness of Unreason also didn’t go unnoticed to the founder of Italian fascism. In a 1932 interview, Mussolini dismissed reason as nothing but a tool for obtaining and securing power: “Reason is a tool, but it can never be the motive force of a crowd.” Clearly, the cult of unreason is necessarily coupled to the collective force required to fundamentally transform society—because let’s face it, what leftist rally (i.e. Occupy Wall Street) hasn’t involved violent agitation and a self-proclaimed fashionable “craziness” from doing drugs to destroying private property and harassing police?
Today especially, the Left sidesteps the principles of the Enlightenment by dismissing their credibility on account of “past racial transgressions”—a common line that is also utilized today to dismiss the Constitution as a “dead document” not because of any particular flaw in reasoning concerning governance and individual liberty, but because it was allegedly tainted by “racist white men”. Richard Delgado, one of the founders of critical race theory, wrote, “If you’re black or Mexican, you should flee from the Enlightenment-based democracies like mad, assuming you have a choice.”4 (280) The animosity is fairly obvious—if you support the principles embodied in the Constitution, you take no issue with the origins of its creation, and you are therefore racist (a decidedly fascist tactic if there ever was one).
No word has been overused more in silencing a political opponent than the word “racist”. Yet there is another angle to this over-emphasis on the tainting of documents with sin that is hardly based upon good intentions. Former New Left radical David Horowitz reminisced in Unholy Alliance on how leftist radicals seek to transform society: “Revolution is a two-sided enterprise. In order to create the revolutionary future, it is necessary first to mobilize massive hatred against the existing world in order to destroy it.”5(90). In other words, unreason is not just an end in itself, but an emotionally mobilizing force for the masses. Mussolini couldn’t have said it better himself, when he deemed reason to be an unfit motivator for a mob.
The caustic hatred that leftists boast on everything from Vietnam to George W. Bush is not only a hallmark of this fashionable trend of unreason, but, like violence, a redemptive act of transformation. New Left professor Todd Gitlin wrote in his essay, “Varieties of Patriotism”, on his opposition to the Vietnam:
“You can hate your country in such a way that the hatred becomes fundamental. A hatred so clear and intense came to feel like a cleansing flame [my emphasis]. By the late 60s, this is what became of much of the New Left.”5(80)
Hate, in the hands of liberal radicals, is therefore lauded as a rallying force for the common good, a tool by which the masses can be emotionally stirred to immediate action. Interestingly, “hate” is another word frequently used on the left to silence and demean conservative opposition, although it’s given a separate meaning when applied to collective sentiment. In this sense, the cult of unreason takes another turn.
Jacques Derrida is the philosophical key to the cult of unreason, because in his philosophy he provides the greatest imposition of power that the collective will could ever hope to establish—the means to use power to transform truth. In his concept of “deconstruction”, Derrida defines the historical relay of literary scholarship to be meaningless, claiming that every historian’s will was imposed upon the text and distorted the truth. In essence, he says, “meaning is created through power and will”, and therefore the only truth that can be found in those records is determined solely by the power imposed upon the text by a reader. So nothing is true, because individuals taint it with their will. Power determines what is true and what is not. “Good” can be redefined to be “bad”, and “hate” can be redefined to be “love”. Liberals can call their redemptive hatred for their country “love” and a conservative’s love for their country “hate”. As in Alice In Wonderland, the world is topsy-turvy, and nothing makes sense. Unreason is the prevailing solution for granting social planners and dictators a moral absolution for every transgression. Genocide is a “purge”, slavery is “freedom”, and violence is “redemptive”. Here lies the secret to the authoritarian vernacular.
By this view, humanity itself can be transformed simply by discovering a pre-made improvement and the truth can also be transformed with the imposition of power. There is a small catch, however: the transformation sought by authoritarian utopia-seekers is imaginary. The cult of unreason takes another detour into the world of fantasy, with the romanticism of being a “dreamer”. As David Horowitz notes in Unholy Alliance,
“Communists and Fascists…like contemporary radicals, they were motivated by an abstraction—the vision of a future that did not exist and had never existed, but which they were convinced they could create.” (49)
To this end, change is not brought about by individual effort and freedom, but by the necessary usage of a collective will to mold humanity towards a visionary’s conception of the future. “Forward!” was Hitler’s trademark salute to the march of the Volksgeist towards an improved, but unknown, humanity. The “greater good” in Soviet Russia, China and Cambodia was a collective effort towards the perfection of the unknown, imaginary “improved human being”. An individual life is not at the heart of the change, but a component of the whole that can be sacrificed. Life is provisional to the cause of a future with a “better life”.
Throughout this process of collective transformation, there is a clear and insistent religious component—although the sentiment is not based on traditional religion, but rather a substitute. The compensation for transgressions past, the concept of racial reparations, and redemptive environmentalism for human existence composes the worship of a collective will (the State) that can rectify human inequalities and wrongs with a transformation popularly called “social justice”. Indeed, Jonah Goldberg points out in Liberal Fascism that Mussolini and Hitler both utilized tactics of moral equivalence to basically replace the concept of “God” with the “State”. The government then becomes the only legitimate source of redemption and meaning for individuals, substituting conditions of self-interest with necessary prerogatives for the “greater good”.
Becoming a better person has taken a sick turn in the world’s history. “Revolution” has been rewired to an agenda by radicals to destroy individuality, use power and violence to disrupt life, and place people onto a trajectory towards an unknown end with no limit to the means. Such horror and tyranny still exists and it will always exist, but the ideas laid out here can still be relayed and given thought.
In the spirit of the New Year, take some time to think of your own self-interest. What do you want? What do you value? What kind of person do you want to become, so that you’ll be happy?
Don’t feel guilty to give yourself that much, especially when there are people in the world who want to guilt you into giving up everything you have. Let your life be your own, so that you can live freely.
“What greater wealth is there than to own your life and to spend it on growing?”
pg. 663, Richard Halley, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Happy New Year 2013!
1: Humphries, Rolfe. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Indiana University Press, Indiana & Bloomington, 1955, renewed 1983 by Winifred Davies, page 1, 16-21, Book 1, page 239-241, Book 10
2: Goebbels, Michael, in Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1941, p. 233.
3: Charen, Mona. Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First. Regnery publishing, 2003.
4: Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. Broadway Books, New York, 2007, 2009.
5: Horowitz, David. Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left. Regnery publishing, 2004.
6: Freddoso, David, “Obama’s Science Czar Suggested Compulsory Abortion, Sterilization”, Washington Examiner, July 14, 2009.