The terror of knowing what this world is about

The terror of knowing what this world is about January 21, 2011

I got sideswiped and sidetracked this morning chipping around reading the blog posts and news items appearing in Google Reader.

I was following my usual routine of opening the longer posts in separate tabs before going back to read them one by one. This video-rich music post from Amanda Marcotte wound up providing the soundtrack for reading the other posts, and as it happened I was listening to David Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey singing "Under Pressure" when I started to read this post from Balloon Juice. They (Bowie and Dorsey) were just reaching that song's soaring, climactic crescendo when I followed the link to this moving account of Judge John Roll's final moments.

The confluence of that song and that story somehow combined to catch me off-guard and knock me sideways in a way that I'll attempt, and likely fail, to convey here.

Here's part of that Arizona Republic article, describing security camera video showing the deadly Jan. 8 assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the parking lot of a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center:

Surveillance footage of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson showed that [John Roll] used his body as a shield to cover the wounded Ron Barber. Roll then took a bullet to the back and lost his life in the process. …

The new details from the surveillance video showed the full extent of Roll's visit to the supermarket where Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet event with constituents.

[Pima County sheriff's Bureau Chief Rick] Kastigar said he watched the first part of the video, which has been turned over to the FBI. The agency has declined to release it. Kastigar described the video's contents.

"You know, I've been a cop for three decades and I've seen some pretty traumatic and disturbing things, and this was very, very upsetting to watch this," Kastigar said.

The video showed Jared Lee Loughner, 22, shooting the Democratic lawmaker in the forehead from several feet away, Kastigar said.

The video shows Loughner turning toward a group of people sitting in chairs, then stepping out of view. Kastigar said that's when Loughner indiscriminately fired at the seated group.

Loughner then shot Barber, Giffords' district director. Almost simultaneously, Roll moved Barber toward the ground and both crawled beneath a table, Kastigar said. Roll then got on top of Barber.

"Judge Roll is responsible for directing Mr. Barber out of the line of fire and helped save his life," Kastigar said.

Mistermix of Balloon Juice is right in saying that this describes the act of "a real, non-Galtian hero" and presents "a hell of a contrast to the crass, materialistic notion of heroism that's gaining currency."

"Galtian" there refers to John Galt, the fictional "hero" of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and the embodiment of what Rand elsewhere calls "The Virtue of Selfishness." That oxymoron — virtuous selfishness — is the core of Rand's philosophy and ethics, or rather, more accurately, of the thing Rand offers in place of either philosophy or ethics. Her ideal character, Galt, turned away from it all like a blind man.

That's always an option — choosing selfishness and pretending it's virtue. But it don't work. It's not a satisfying alternative.

The other option — the opposite of Rand's emaciated, deformed notion of humanity — is one centered around the essential importance of love. That's such an old-fashioned word, Freddie Mercury said, apologizing for the embarrassing earnestness of the sentiment before howling that word over and over as the inescapable and only satisfactory answer to why, why, why?

And that answer, that slashed-and-torn, most excellent answer, was the one Judge Roll came up with under pressure. No one has greater love than this.

But is any of this conveying what it was that had me so gobsmacked this morning reading this story while hearing this song? Have I said anything I started out to say about what their coincidence helped me to remember and what that means?

Have I said anything I started out to say about being good? God, I don't know. A stranger is shot in the street, you hardly move to help. But if, half an hour before, you spent just 10 minutes with the fellow and knew a little about him and his family, you might just jump in front of his killer and try to stop it. Really knowing is good. Not knowing, or refusing to know, is bad, or amoral, at least.

That's Ray Bradbury in Something Selfish This Way Comes, a passage I've quoted before as an illustration of what I was trying to describe as "the epistemic importance of empathy." The last time I posted that passage I was reacting to the astonishing spectacle of a political party organized in opposition to empathy — the spectacle of a coordinated media campaign denouncing empathy, rejecting it in favor of the "crass, materialistic notion of heroism" Mistermix described.

I'm still astonished that that monthlong anti-empathy campaign really happened — astonished that people said such things in public, using their real names, imagining or pretending that the rest of us imagine or pretend, as they do, that selfishness is a virtue. No one has greater foolishness than this, they said, to put oneself at risk or inconvenience for anyone else.

If they were right, then then the judge's final act was wrong.

If Rand was right, then John Roll was a fool.

If Rand's disciples, giddy with their newfound political influence, are right, then there is nothing heroic or admirable about his daring sacrificial act, nothing virtuous about his courageous emulation of the act he had just celebrated that same hour in church.

And so we know that they are not right.

We see with utter clarity that Rand and the Randians and the anti-empathy squad cannot possibly be right because we look and we see and we know that John Roll's final act was heroic and admirable, courageous and good — a reminder, a proof, that selfishness and cowardice are never virtues. All that Galtian, Randian nonsense evaporates. It cannot withstand the example of one who chose to give love give love give love give love give love give love give love give love give love …

Nothing new here — nothing novel or innovative or unusual. But worth repeating, I think. In any case, it was something I needed to repeat after firing up the computer this morning to find that the artists and the saints had conspired against me, teaming up to remind me what this world is about.

Love dares you. Mm ba ba de.

"Grown ups like to have fun, too. You'll find out when you get older."

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  • Caravelle

    Yes. But if you start thinking about it there is no reason not to refer to people by the gender they claim. Certainly less reason than to use ten syllables to ask for the bloody salt when I could’ve used just one. When you ask yourself “why not use the gender people claim ?” it usually comes down to either incorrect beliefs on transgendered people or pure lack of respect. And once you’ve been corrected on the former and you still do it, it becomes the latter.
    And disrespecting people is an issue of pure manners. Or at least it ought to be. In practice it looks like manners are more about convention… </9year-oldCaravelle>
    I mean, it’s natural for ordinary people to be misinformed on the subject of transgendered people or to simply never think about it but wouldn’t that be the therapist’s job ?

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Yes, and there’s no need for them to feel that way when the subject is the actions of whites who are long dead.
    Even when said whites are their ancestors? Nobody likes to believe they’re descended from bad people. I think most Confederate apologists are motivated by this desire to believe their ancestors *weren’t* complicit in evil.
    Posted by: Loquat | Jan 22, 2011 at 11:32 PM
    ———————————————–
    I have heard people *brag* about how thier ancestors were pirates, vikings, and mass murderers… but they feel the need to defend the fact that some of thier ancestors were slaveholders. They were ok with being related to murderous barbarian thieves… but slaveowning had to be justified.

  • @Hawker: THere are lots of other things people don’t want their ancestors to be. Societry says that being a pirate, a viking, a soldier are all socially acceptable kinds of bad person to be descended from.
    I doubt anyone goes around bragging that his great-grandfather was a traitor, human trafficker, or serial rapist.

  • I have heard people *brag* about how thier ancestors were pirates, vikings, and mass murderers… but they feel the need to defend the fact that some of thier ancestors were slaveholders. They were ok with being related to murderous barbarian thieves… but slaveowning had to be justified.

    I’m not exactly sure why they have that need. My first thought was that they were using their ancestors as proxies to justify their own racism, but that seems too simple. Their defense of their ancestors almost sounds like the argument sometimes used by RTCs, who insist to atheists that the early Christian martyrs wouldn’t have given their lives for something they knew to be a lie. (A defense offered when no one make that claim about the martyrs.)

  • Ysidro

    Once again, days late. Man, this thread got messed up fast. Kind of wished MadG was around for this one. Far too much racism and sexism… this white, heteronormative male got the heebie jeebie skeevies just reading the past few days. *shudder*

  • //I mean, it’s natural for ordinary people to be misinformed on the subject of transgendered people or to simply never think about it but wouldn’t that be the therapist’s job ?//
    Sometimes I wonder if I misunderstood her, and what she was asking wasn’t so much “why do you want everyone to share your opinion” and “why do you assume that explaining will change their minds”. Because I know on some levels that I’m assuming people are simply misinformed and not malicious, and that very often I’m being too optimistic. So maybe she was encouraging me to just go “eh, my nearest and dearest think it’s OK to misgender people, but I know better”. Not a viable long-term solution, but maybe a sanity-saving tactic sometimes.

  • Tangentially, the system we have set up now where police departments profit from the confiscated property of drug-dealers strikes me as an equally bad idea, for pretty much the same reason.

    Oh, it’s worse than that.
    Police departments are free to confiscate property from anyone they choose (sans trial, arrest, or any warrant) and it is then up to the victim to prove that the money was legally theirs. This ‘asset forfeiture’ has become the major source of income for many police departments.
    In essence police officers are now allowed to rob anyone they please and then force them to come to court to plead to be given their stuff back.

  • Bryan Feir

    @Ross:

    the overwhelming majority of people learned best by mechanically copying word for word what the teacher wrote on the board without paying it much attention beyond what is required for the mechanical act of copying.

    … As my high school chemistry teacher used to say, “A lecture is a process by which the notes of the lecturer enter the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.”

  • Caravelle

    Tonio :

    I’m not exactly sure why they have that need. My first thought was that they were using their ancestors as proxies to justify their own racism, but that seems too simple. Their defense of their ancestors almost sounds like the argument sometimes used by RTCs, who insist to atheists that the early Christian martyrs wouldn’t have given their lives for something they knew to be a lie. (A defense offered when no one make that claim about the martyrs.)

    The answer is probably something much more primal and simple than this but here’s my idea : when we imagine the historical past there is a tendency to cast yourself into it – to imagine “what would I have done in this situation ?”. And we tend to put ourselves on the good side, assume we’d have been an abolitionist in the antebellum South for example. Of course we’ll never know, because we weren’t born then we were born now. But… your ancestors are probably the closest thing you can get to “who would you have been in that time ?”. They share some of your genes, sometimes your name, insofar as one can compare backgrounds they’re probably more likely to have something similar to yours than a random person would.
    So if your ancestors were slave-traders it kinda breaks the illusion that you would’ve been an abolitionist. I mean, your ancestors weren’t, why would you have been ?
    As for pirates and Vikings, they’re just cool. Interesting how that happened by the way, I mean Nazis aren’t cool. When did the transition happen from “horrible scary people who raped and killed my grandmother” to awesomeness personified ?

  • Cissa

    Oddly- or probably not- most of the “objectivists” I’ve known have government-funded jobs, and if those jobs are lost, live on unemployment.
    Ah, consistency.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Urgh, Rand. Her philosophies sicken me even more now I know she patterned them after fangirling a murderer. — Darth Ember
    It’s called “Hybristophilia.”
    Ayn Rand and Harley Quinn — seprarated at birth?
    And by extension, all those John Galt Celebrity Impersonators who came out of the woodwork after Election 2008 quoting Atlas Shrugged chapter-and-verse are bending the knee to a RL Harley Quinn.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    For the record: Ayn Rand is dead. So while it is not possible to verbally or textually engage with her to ask her what in the H E double hockey sticks she was thinking, it is at the very least possible to examine her works and deduce her thoughts on a subject. — Pius Thicknesse
    Though in the black-and-white comics boom of the Eighties, she DID surface as a chain-smoking undead cyborg in the pages of Fission Chicken, leading an army of Deros up from the Shaver Mystery’s version of the Hollow Earth. Don’t know how Fission Chicken defeated her, but it had to have been loopy.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    This pretty much sums up why Rand’s philosophy is repulsive to me. (TRIGGER WARNING: contains descriptions of violence and murder regarding a child.) — Darth Ember
    The essay down that link should have been titled “Ayn Rand’s Edward Cullen”.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Continuing on the above, it’s really starting to make sense:
    Ayn Rand = Stephanie Meyers
    Atlas Shrugged = Twilight (fap fap fap)
    John Galt et al = Edward Cullen (sparkle sparkle sparkle)
    Objectivists = Twitards

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Shortly after the 2008 elections (and their Objectivist aftermath with numerous John Galt Celebrity Impersonators coming out of the woodwork), my writing partner told me that two books were flying off the shelves in all bookstores, one being snapped up by women and the other by men:
    Female: Twilight and its sequels and knockoffs.
    Male: Atlas Shrugged and anything by Ayn Rand.
    This is SO not going to end well…

  • I doubt anyone goes around bragging that his great-grandfather was a traitor, human trafficker, or serial rapist.
    I suspect the latter happens. It just gets called ‘a great lover’ or ‘a great seducer’.

  • Bryan Feir

    @Headless Unicorn Guy:

    Though in the black-and-white comics boom of the Eighties, she DID surface as a chain-smoking undead cyborg in the pages of Fission Chicken, leading an army of Deros up from the Shaver Mystery’s version of the Hollow Earth. Don’t know how Fission Chicken defeated her, but it had to have been loopy.

    Actually, I believe he defeated the Deros first by pointing out to them that Rand was already dead and they’d arrived too late, at which point they ran off in a panic. The Randborg didn’t show up until the end of the story, asking where her alien invasion force had gone.
    … Lovely, now I’m going to have to dig around to find that. Wonder if it was in the actual Fission Chicken comic or one of the Critters anthology books. Why does my brain hang on to crazy things like this?

  • ajay

    I doubt anyone goes around bragging that his great-grandfather was a traitor, human trafficker, or serial rapist.
    True except for the “traitor” bit: technically speaking, George Washington, Sophie Scholl and Mahatma Gandhi were all traitors (as in: acting against the governments of their countries).

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Lovely, now I’m going to have to dig around to find that. Wonder if it was in the actual Fission Chicken comic or one of the Critters anthology books. Why does my brain hang on to crazy things like this? — Bryan Feir
    More likely one of the Critters anthologies. FC had a longer run in there than he did under his own title.
    And I just heard last week that the guy who drew FC died last month.
    As a memorial, here’s one of the variants of the Fission Chicken theme song:
    “FISSION CHICKEN HAS A WAR
    AGAINST ALL MIND CONTROLLERS —
    IF HE CATCHES UP WITH THEM
    HE’LL PUNCH THEM IN THE MOLARS!
    FISSION CHICKEN, SAVE THE DAY!
    FISSION CHICKEN, DON’T FRET!
    GRAB THE CREEPS AND HIT THEM WITH
    A GREAT BIG HEAVY OB-JECT!”