Thursday, March 15, 2018

I Read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead So You Don't Have To

The following post contains major spoilers for Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, but don’t worry—you really shouldn’t read this book.

A number of public figures have expressed admiration for Rand’s writing and philosophy, including Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Ron and Rand Paul, and Clarence Thomas.  (Paul Ryan was also once a famous Rand enthusiast, but has since reversed his position on her philosophy, describing it, accurately, as atheist.)  Trump has even stated that he identifies with the protagonist of The Fountainhead.  Knowing that her work has been influential with many powerful people, I felt a (possibly misplaced) sense of civic duty to learn the details of her famous views on altruism and selfishness from Rand herself.

I listened to The Fountainhead as an unabridged audiobook, specifically the 25th anniversary edition with a special introduction by the author.  In it, she explains that her goal in The Fountainhead was “the portrayal of a moral idea” and “the presentation of an ideal man” in the protagonist, Howard Roark.  Roark is an architect, and the story follows his career and the lives of several of his contemporaries in New York City from the early 1920s to the 1940s.

Even without Rand’s introduction, the principles depicted in The Fountainhead are clear.  Rand unambiguously spells out her ideas on morality and ethics via both the actions and the dialogue of the main characters, including a pair of long monologues delivered by the hero and the primary antagonist.

In short, the philosophy of The Fountainhead is this: Fostering human genius is the only moral imperative.  Gifted people must be free to pursue their own artistic, scientific, or philosophic endeavors at all costs.  If one does not possess genius, one can redeem oneself only by recognizing and promoting it in others.  Most people do not possess the former and are not capable of the latter, and these people do not matter.  Rand, via the protagonist Roark, refers to them as “parasites”; the geniuses (referred to as “creators”) can ignore the parasites in the pursuit of their own ends.

Self-sacrifice and concern for the opinions of others are the ultimate evils.  Altruism will lead to the downfall of the human species.  Charity is wasteful at best and reprehensible at worst; if it distracts one from the selfish pursuit of one’s own goals, it is evil.

I want to stress that these ideals are not implied or represented symbolically; they are stated explicitly.  Roark says, “Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.… The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent.  He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.… All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good.  All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.”

The idea that mothers should try to love all the world’s children as they love their own is a “line of tripe.”  A home for “subnormal” children built by a philanthropist, which contains amenities such as playgrounds and an art room, is a waste of space and resources.  The only semi-likable character, a social worker who, on the surface, appears to genuinely wish to help poor people improve their lives, admits that she’s miserable, that she hates and is disgusted by the indigent people she works with, and that she doesn’t know a single coworker who actually enjoys the job.

Further, the poor are depicted as being solely responsible for their own poverty.  The main female character, a journalist, moves into a slum for two months to write an exposé on the conditions inside tenement housing.  The article she actually writes makes it clear that the poor are poor because of their own laziness and inadequacy.  One family’s children are roaming the streets half naked and their rent is going unpaid while their father drinks up his salary at a local speak-easy.  Another poor family just purchased an exorbitantly priced radio.  A third lives on charity while their able-bodied father avoids work; they are pregnant with their tenth child.

Because the pursuit and recognition of personal genius are the only morals that matter, no act is immoral as long as it doesn’t interfere with these two principles.  Roark, for example, violently rapes the main female character, Dominique Francon.  After the rape, Francon becomes obsessed with Roark and the two begin a bizarre and toxic relationship.  Roark later becomes Francon’s third husband.  This, remember, is the hero that our current president claims he identifies with.

Roark’s best friend, a wealthy newspaper owner named Gail Wynand, has no real genius of his own but does possess the gift of recognizing artistic genius in others.  As a hobby, Wynand enjoys singling out activists and idealists, offering them huge salaries to write columns for his paper denouncing their own ideals, and ruining them financially if they refuse.  One commits suicide as a result.  To this Wynand responds, “If lightning strikes a rotten tree and it collapses, it’s not the fault of the lightning.”

Roark himself dynamites a building he designed because it wasn’t being built to his exact specifications.  He is arrested and refuses a lawyer; at the trial, he presents only his own testimony as evidence—his monologue about “creators” and “parasites.”  He is acquitted.

Wynand is Francon’s second husband, and after she leaves him for Roark, he allows his newspaper to fall apart and liquidates most of his assets.  He pours the money into building the largest skyscraper in New York and awards the design contract to Roark.  The novel ends with Roark and Francon standing atop this building in progress, surveying the city and reflecting on the greatness of man.

The morality of individual genius and selfishness and the immorality of altruism are emphasized again and again throughout the book, and we should be legitimately concerned that a number of public policymakers find this book inspirational.  The idea that the poor are completely to blame for their poverty, and that charity or tax-payer funded programs to assist them are useless and wasteful, is objectively, provably wrong.  The notion that a man of genius is justified in any immoral act he might commit in the pursuit of his ambitions is disturbing.  The assertion that a few select men among us are “creators” and the rest are mere “parasites,” whose lives are meaningless and irrelevant, is horrifying.

Further, the book’s stance on rape and the rights of women is backward even for the 1940s.  That a reader could continue to admire the hero despite his commission of a violent rape tells us something important about that reader’s views on the seriousness of sexual assault. 

Ignoring its moral philosophy for a moment, how does The Fountainhead hold up as a piece of literature?

Rand’s style is probably an acquired taste.  She describes individuals’ appearances, clothing, and movements in intense detail, from the knot of a tie to the turn of a hand during a conversation.  But when it comes to characters’ internal motivations, she ignores the admonition to “show, don’t tell.”  Not only does Rand spell out the main characters’ thoughts in words, the characters themselves do the same in extended, unnatural-sounding soliloquys.

Rand also has a habit of reusing distinctive words in a way that’s noticeable and distracting.  Characters’ clothes are never trendy or respectable; they’re always correct.  In the second half of the novel, Rand falls in love with the word bromide—it appears eleven times.  In short, her literary skill wasn’t enough to salvage my enjoyment of this undertaking.

You shouldn’t read The Fountainhead.  There are too many better written and more worthwhile books out there.  But when a public figure professes love for a piece of art, fiction, or philosophy, we might learn something important about that figure by examining the thing that they love.  Once in awhile, then, perhaps it is a civic duty.  I heard John McCain loves For Whom The Bell Tolls; maybe start there.

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead, read by Christopher Hurt. 25th anniversary ed., Blackstone Audio, 1968.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (2012) Audiobook

Not many nonfiction books have the potential to fundamentally change a reader’s perspective on a significant issue, but Steven Pinker’s Better Angels is on the shortlist.  In this ambitious work, Pinker uses historical and scientific data from numerous disciplines to demonstrate, conclusively, that human violence of every kind—from domestic abuse, to violent crime such as murder, to wars both large and small, to violence perpetrated by governments against their people, to even terrorism—has declined by orders of magnitude over the course of human history.

Knowing that this thesis drastically contradicts widely-held popular beliefs, Pinker musters statistic after statistic, chart after chart, and historical account after historical account to prove it right.  He refutes the widespread impression that the 20th century was the bloodiest in history by first reminding us how violent previous eras were.  He describes (sometimes in lurid detail) the kinds of tortures inflicted on petty criminals by their legal systems in the Middle Ages; the raids and slaughters carried out by hunter-gatherer tribes against neighboring tribes (he thoroughly lays to rest the “noble savage” stereotype in the process); the blood sports such as bear-baiting and cat-burning that were once considered high entertainment in many cultures; the frequency and acceptability of rape, child abuse, and infanticide around the world even through the Industrial Revolution; and the centuries of wars among great and small powers in Europe that preceded World War I.

After shattering the rose-colored glasses with which we usually view the past, Pinker discusses what he calls “the civilizing process,” the trends that led us to no longer consider practices such as torture and public execution ordinary, but rather horrifying and unthinkable.  He presents massive quantities of data to prove that every kind of violence has declined in every culture around the world, leaving the reader with little room to doubt his claim that human society is, at present, the most peaceable that it has ever been.

Finally, Pinker trains his scientific eye on the psychological and social processes that have accompanied this decline, including the evolutionary mechanisms behind revenge and sadism and the spread of empathy and self-control.  Despite the grimness of most of the book, the outlook is a positive one; Pinker has no need for optimism when the statistics are on his side.

This book is a major undertaking for both Pinker and the reader.  The paperback is about 600 pages; the audiobook, about 37 hours.  But it is also one of the most informative, densely-packed, and fascinating reads I have encountered in years.  Pinker’s characteristic style—educated but highly readable and geared toward a lay audience—shines in this piece.  I never became bored with it (though I did have to take a short break about halfway through, after having more than one vivid dream about being involved in a terrorist attack).  History buffs, political science junkies, sociology and psychology enthusiasts—and fans of having their unquestioned assumptions about reality destroyed—will love this book.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook, read beautifully by Arthur Morey.  (Those familiar with Pinker’s speaking voice will be grateful that the book is not read by the author.)  Morey is the epitome of professionalism and his reading is flawless.  And though the print versions include numerous graphs and charts to illustrate the many percentages and raw numbers that Pinker discusses, these figures are so well explained in the text that I had no trouble following the data without the visual aids.

This book is not for the faint-hearted—if you buy the audiobook, I don’t recommend listening around small children—but if you read it, you may find yourself left with a revolutionary perspective on and a new hopefulness about the future and fate of our species.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why I Love the Lip Plates in Black Panther [No Spoilers]

To an average white Westerner, generically ignorant about the history and traditions of indigenous peoples all over the world (I speak only, of course, for myself), the lip plates worn by some African people—and a few indigenous peoples in other parts of the world—are the epitomizing symbol of a primitive, alien culture.  This particular body modification, in which the lower lip is sometimes stretched to 20 cm in diameter, seems impractical, extreme, perhaps even horrifying.

But if we set aside our cultural biases and examine the practice objectively, we must ask: is it any more bizarre than, say, plastic surgery—subjecting oneself to an invasive medical procedure and risking the complications associated with anesthesia and infection for the sake of better conformity to ideals of beauty?  Or tattoos—using dozens of tiny needles to painfully inject ink deep into the dermis?  Practices that, yes, we might be judgmental about, but we don’t look upon as particularly extreme, and certainly not as primitive?  Indeed, Shauna LaTosky, an anthropologist who lived among the Mursi people for several months, compares their tradition of lip-stretching to her own choice to wear painful three-inch stiletto heels to dance competitions (LaTosky 384).

LaTosky interviewed Mursi women—the only gender in that culture which wears lip plates—about their own feelings about the practice and found a range of attitudes that, in hindsight, should be unsurprising.  Many of the women considered their lip plates to be a source of pride, and when wearing them, believed that they walked with a more upright bearing and felt more confident in public and around the men in their lives (388).  But other women, particularly some younger women, worried that foreigners would stare at or mock them (391-2).  For similar reasons, some young men also expressed a preference for women who had chosen not to stretch their lips (396).  And the local government, which had been backed by the USSR for a couple of decades, had repeatedly threatened to ban the practice and considered it “uncivilised” and backward (396-7).

The film Black Panther prominently features a man—credited as “River Tribe elder” and presumed by some audiences to be Nakia’s father—wearing a moderately-sized plate in his lower lip, as well as a pair of plates in his stretched earlobes.  The plates are always fashionably color-coordinated with his clothing, both during T’Challa’s coronation, when he wears traditional attire, and during a meeting of the elders, at which he wears a bright green Western-cut suit.  Among the scenes of street life in the Wakandan capitol, we also see a young man wearing a lip plate, showing off some futuristic Wakandan tech to his friends, who are not wearing lip plates.

In Wakanda the lip plates are clearly unremarkable—no more attention-grabbing than a nice pair of stilettos.

Wakanda is meant to represent Africa in its purest form, unbothered by colonization, the slave trade, or Western influence of any kind.  One might imagine that a culture free to evolve without the pressure of Western judgments about what is fashionable and attractive—that is uninfluenced by and, frankly, uninterested in Western ideals of beauty—would not feel the need to abandon its time-honored dress in the way that even a highly traditional tribe like the Mursi feel now.

By presenting these lip plates as ordinary accessories, worn by a respected and fashionable person in a highly modern world, without comment, Black Panther throws our Western assumptions about beauty and fashion back in our faces.  It points out, blatantly, that beauty is cultural, that the West does not have a monopoly on determining what is attractive or fashionable, that there is nothing inherently primitive or uncultured about traditional African accoutrements like lip plates.

Quite the contrary.  The entire film is a celebration of both past and future Africa—a love letter to the religions, fashions, and even languages of pre-colonialist Africa and a statement about their intrinsic value.  It makes the bold claim that Africa has a great deal to offer the world besides its natural resources: mythologies that the West can learn from, brain power that can help move the entire planet into the 21st century, and, yes, fashions that can add color and flavor to the monochromacy of Western trends.

Work Cited:
LaTosky, Shauna. “Reflections on the lip-plates of Mursi women as a source of stigma and self-esteem.” The Perils of Face: Essays on Cultural Contact, Respect and Self-Esteem in Southern Ethiopia, edited by Ivo Strecker and Jean Lydall, LIT Verlag, 2006, pp. 382-97. Mursi Online, Oxford Department of International Development, 2013,

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Title of This Blog

“Cranberry Relish” may sound like a more fitting title for a food blog than a language blog (or perhaps an advice column by the Pioneer Woman), but there is punny linguistic explanation behind it.

First I have to explain a couple of technical terms: morpheme, and more specifically, cranberry morpheme.

In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest unit that has meaning.  A morpheme can be a whole word, like cat or run, or it can be part of a word, like the -ing in writing or the un- in unclear.  The word unhurriedly is made up of four morphemes: un-hurry-ed-ly.  Each affix adds meaning to the root morpheme hurry, but we also understand their meanings independent of the word they’re attached to: un- means “not” or “contrary to”; -ed indicates past tense; and -ly means roughly “in this manner” or “like this.”

A cranberry morpheme is a special type of morpheme that looks like it should have an independent meaning, but that meaning has been lost to time.  The term is derived from the cran in cranberry.  The meanings of morphemes in other berry names are fairly straightforward: a blueberry is a blue berry; a blackberry is a black berry; a straw berry is a berry that grows on the ground (in the straw).  The cran in cranberry looks as though it should follow a similar pattern, but what is a cran?

The English word cranberry comes from the German word Kranbeere, literally “crane-berry.”  It may be a reference to the shape of the flower, which resembles the head and neck of a crane.  The pronunciation difference in English between cran and crane led to the dissociation of cranberries from cranes, and the morpheme cran lost its independent meaning.

The were in werewolf is another fun one.  The werewolf myth has existed in western culture for hundreds of years, and in Old English, wer simply meant “man”—a werewolf was a “man-wolf.”  The word wer has been lost in English, so the morpheme were is now a cranberry morpheme; it no longer has an independent meaning.  Interestingly, though, fantasy writers have reappropriated it to refer to any person who can shapeshift into an animal.  Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery series (adapted into the TV series True Blood) features weretigers, werepanthers, and werefoxes, as well as werewolves.  In this way, the cranberry morpheme were has acquired a new meaning.

One more of my favorites: the cob in cobweb.  As a child, I thought that spider webs and cobwebs were two different things—that spider webs were made by spiders, but cobwebs were made of dust.  It’s an understandable mistake, since the word cobweb doesn’t seem to have anything to do with spiders.  Cob is another cranberry morpheme, its original meaning buried in our language’s long and complicated history.  It comes from the Old English word for spider: attercoppe, literally “poison head.”  Say “coppeweb” a few times fast and it quickly turns into “cobweb.”

The second half of the title Cranberry Relish is a play on the double meaning of relish: a condiment usually made of chopped ingredients, but also enjoyment of or delight in something.  This blog is meant to, among other things, convey my delight in all things linguistic, cranberry morphemes included.

I shopped this title among a few friends before I created the blog.  I got consistently negative feedback, but by then I was too attached to it to consider anything else, so it stuck.

Still to come: Nectarine Mustard, Chokecherry Gravy, and Kumquat Tapenade.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Advertising Infidelity

When you live in a small city, you come to recognize the vehicles around you like you come to recognize faces.  I’ve seen some version of this bumper sticker on vehicles at two places I frequent: my workplace and my gym.  The sticker features the outline of a rifle and the word “infidel” in both English and (somewhat stylized) Arabic.  Each time I see it, I can’t help but speculate on the message it’s intended to convey and the audience it’s intended for.  In this post I want to voice some of that speculation.

I was hesitant about writing this because I don’t want to presume to speak for the people who put this sticker on their trucks, or to put words in their mouths, or to assume that I can accurately read their intentions without speaking to them.  But at the same time, this is public speech; it’s a message pasted to the exterior of a vehicle that moves in public spaces, and it’s clearly meant to convey a message to any who might read it, including strangers.  To put a cryptic sticker on your car is to invite people to assign a meaning to it.  We teach rhetorical analysis—the interpretation of a public message and its purpose—in my Comp classes as a skill.  With that in mind, and acknowledging that I may be completely misinterpreting the intentions of the vehicle owners, here is my speculation.

The sticker, as I noted, has both English and Arabic text.  The Arabic text in particular is odd if one takes it at face value.  The Arabic-speaking population in this area is microscopic; the number of Arabic speakers who do not also read English is even smaller.  The Muslim population in the Black Hills isn’t even large enough to support one mosque.  The likelihood that a Muslim person who reads Arabic but not English will see this vehicle and its sticker is tiny.  So while on its face the intended audience appears to be Arabic-speaking Muslims, in reality, this is unlikely.

Let’s take a moment to consider this point.  Pretending that your message is intended for one audience when it is actually intended for someone else is a kind of message in itself.  Imagine someone at a party, loudly commenting on some piece of gossip to a group of listeners while secretly hoping some different group will overhear.  This is essentially what is happening here.  The sticker owner purports to be saying, “I’m not a Muslim—in fact, I’m violently opposed to Islam [assuming that’s the intended message behind the image of the rifle]—and I want to make sure every Muslim in these here parts knows it.”  The sticker owner is actually saying, “I want my majority white English-speaking non-Muslim neighbors to think that I would tell any Muslim I meet that I’m violently opposed to Islam.”  The context changes the message in every way that matters.  The same sticker on a vehicle in New York or London would carry completely different meanings.

Consider also the image of the rifle.  It reminds me of similar stickers with text like “I’d don’t dial 911” and “Keep honking, I’m reloading.”  It indicates that the owner is not only prepared to defend himself with violence, but eager to do so—that he actually hopes for the opportunity and justification to shoot someone.

Is it true?  Does the owner truly hope for a home invasion or an assault so they have a reason to kill the offender?  Or is it simply a fine example of alpha male-style posturing?  In some cases it’s probably the former, and in some cases the latter.

The combination of the rifle and the text on this particular sticker seems to boast that the owner hopes to be attacked—indeed, invites an attack—by an offended Muslim on the basis of the owner’s infidelity so the owner then has an excuse to kill that Muslim.  One can imagine the owner daydreaming about just such a situation.

Why is this worth speculating about?  We know there’s plenty of anti-Muslim bigotry and good old-fashioned male aggression in our ether, so who is concerned about this particular sticker?

It concerns me because it expresses an eagerness for confrontation that I sometimes see in myself.

Sometimes I imagine being confronted by some hypothetical individual over some opinion I’ve expressed or contentious statement I’ve made.  In my mind, I rehearse how I would respond—the arguments and facts I’d muster; the sources I’d reference.  I even experience the physiological response when I’m imagining this: my jaw clenches, my face tightens, the acid of anxiety fills my stomach.

I worry that when I see the eagerness for confrontation that’s demonstrated in that sticker, it enables me to justify it in myself.  It excuses it.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sam Harris’s work lately, and it’s gotten me thinking about cognitive resources.  The brain is like a rechargeable battery: you can replenish its power reserves through things like sleep, meditation, and other things that relax you, but generally speaking, from day to day you only have so much mental energy to expend.  Do you want to spend it on anger?  On anxiety?  On preparing for conflicts that will probably never happen, planning for disasters that are spectacularly unlikely?

I’d rather spend it thinking about my creative work, mulling over interesting things I’ve read or listened to lately, and remembering the people, animals, and things that bring me joy.  I think we should be careful that we don’t allow the behavior or mentality of others to influence us disproportionately; that we don’t become the anger and the confrontation that we condemn in others.

When I see that sticker again, I will remind myself that I’m not obligated to spend any cognitive resources worrying about who its owner is or what they’re trying to say.

I invite your commentary on this topic.  If you have something to add, or think I’ve drastically misinterpreted this message, please comment below.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: Creation by Gore Vidal (1981)

Though “epic” may be the technically correct term (in that it is Homeric in its scope), the word does not do justice to Gore Vidal’s spectacular and monumental novel Creation.  Set primarily in ancient Persia during the reigns of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, Creation combines the scale and vision of Homer’s Odyssey with the intimacy of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  The narrative is presented as the autobiography of Cyrus Spitama, half-Persian, half-Greek, grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and bosom friend of the Crown Prince and future Great King, Xerxes.  It spans his long life, from his birth in a Zoroastrian cult, through his entry into the Persian court, his ambassadorships to India, China, and Greece, and finally his death at seventy-five.

Classical literature often has a distinctly foreign feel, but Vidal makes the ancient world seem real and near as few authors have done.  He writes not as a modern man looking at this 2500-year-old culture through a modern lens, but as a Persian noble for whom this setting was modern.  Cyrus is unburdened by the baggage of Western cultural norms and Vidal’s knowledge of future history, giving the reader the distinct and rare sensation of exploring the ancient world as a native, rather than a tourist.

During his travels, Cyrus meets figures such as the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, and Socrates (he doesn’t find the latter particularly impressive); he visits the hanging gardens of Babylon, where he watches the teenaged Xerxes seduce an adolescent temple priestess; he is married to a 12-year-old Indian princess; and he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in China.  His journey spans nearly the entirety of the known world, and he reflects on each adventure with a mix of dry humor, the detachment that comes with the passing of decades, and the nostalgia of old age.

Creation is no light undertaking (my paperback copy is nearly 600 pages of seemingly microscopic font), yet as I neared its end, I found myself dreading the inevitable farewell to Cyrus and his devoted stenographer Democritus.  Like the end of a long and full vacation in a foreign country, I wished I had time to see just one more sight, meet just one more character.  Barring that, I plan to dive deeper into Vidal’s body of work; if his other novels are half as engaging as Creation, it will be time well spent.

I Read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead So You Don't Have To

The following post contains major spoilers for Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead , but don’t worry—you really shouldn’t read this bo...