“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”
– attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
As many Objectivists, myself included, are the geeky sort, today’s XKCD has already become the subject of some discussion, particularly at Jenn Casey’s place. The following is a refined version of the comment I left there.
Randall Munroe is an extraordinarily sharp guy, whose geeky sense of humor I love. More than once he’s written about an idea or thought that I’ve had and never heard elsewhere; one of my favorites is the notion of using tranducers and a phase inverter to mess around with the idiots with big booming car stereos.
He has referenced Ayn Rand in the past here, in the mouseover text. I didn’t find that one particularly offensive; I saw that one as more of a good-natured sort of ribbing rather than the usual sort of gratuitous diss we normally get, in contrast to Trey Peden who was more offended. Disappointingly, Randall Munroe’s latest jab confirms that Trey’s call was right the first time.
However, in joining the cottage industry of garden variety Ayn Rand bashing, Munroe’s ultimate joke ends up on the others in that cottage.
Overall, I like and use Jenn’s positive approach of contrasting the stereotype with the hard fact of who is standing right in front of them. My rather geeky mental phrasing for it is as follows: “Well, unless you think I’m an asshole/demagogue/[insert smear here], I break your theory of Objectivism. I am the fact that does not fit. Deal.”
Where I see the limitation is that this “mythbusting” approach works best at the personal level. It forces the person in front of you, someone who already knows you personally, to re-evaluate his “theory” of Objectivists, or confess to being the asshole himself right on the spot.
In the public square, a different and IMO sterner approach is called for. XKCD author Randall Munroe isn’t in front of any of us. He’s a public figure, taking shots at **people** (but not at ideas; that’s a key distinction there), in the public square, and to a large audience who also do not see us. Neither he nor they are aware of the fact that many Objectivists aren’t assholes, and he and they don’t care.
In that sphere, the discussion ought to be about ideas, not about people. Therefore, in that space, my goal is to make it about the ideas.
Here, the joke Munroe plays ends up less on Objectivists than it does on our attackers, on three levels that Objectivists can appreciate.
First, nearly all of what purports to be “serious” criticism of Ayn Rand follows precisely the pattern of what Munroe believes is a joke. Other than being in stick drawings, Munroe’s joke is undifferentiable from what passes under more “serious” venues, such as the New York Times. On this unintended point, I agree completely with him: what passes as mainstream criticism of Ayn Rand/Objectivists is a joke.
Second: Munroe illustrates another common pattern among our “critics”: in choosing to act like a jerk to us, he acts on the premise that Objectivists *as a group* are not worthy of even the most basic respect, or what they call “common decency”. This, too, is regrettably common to the point of being nearly universal. Such things as simple goodwill, trying to understand someone’s POV first before criticizing, doing due diligence, even “Godwin’s Law” — all go out the window when dealing with Objectivists. It speaks extremely poorly of the true worth of our opponents’ professed convictions, that they would permit themselves this moral license to piss on any group of human beings. It is completely fair for Objectivists to call such interlocutors out for “true colors” on this count.
Last but not least: almost without exception, all of this sort of thing is always directed at people (“You have terrible taste”) and NEVER THE IDEAS. In the famous mouseover text, Munroe writes:
I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge asshole to everyone.’ ”
Attack the person — check.
Make something up — check.
No reference to actual ideas — checkmate.
As with the likes of Paul Krugman, if he isn’t attacking Ayn Rand or Objectivists *personally*, or making shit up wholesale about what Objectivist ideas actually are — he is silent. We already know why that is the case, of course: Ayn Rand’s actual ideas scare the hell out of these people. They can’t know — but strongly suspect — that if Ayn Rand’s actual ideas ever gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas, theirs will lose. They are so strict about it that they almost never risk stating the ideas in public, even for the purpose of attacking them. This is why the entirely of their efforts in regard to Objectivist ideas is to wave people off of them *before* they look; those aren’t the ideas you are looking for.
Now, of course Randall Munroe probably doesn’t believe himself a “serious critic” of Objectivism in the first place. He implicitly acknowledges this fact in his choice of platform — a webcomic — for his bit of “attack under cover of humor”. If cornered, I can easily imagine him and his supporters whining “Dude, it’s a webcomic, chill out, can’t you take a joke?” He does at least have that expedient, unlike the Anthony Daniels and Roger Kimballs of the world.
I know it’s a webcomic. I know it’s a joke. The joke’s on all the other Ayn Rand attackers; now we can simply laugh, link to XKCD #1049 and say “Your argument rises to the seriousness of this joke.” What Randall Munroe’s comic has done, is throw more light on this truth: Ayn Rand’s ideas have few (if any) serious, intellectual critics.
Imagine that scene in Highlander where McCleod wanders the battlefield shouting “They won’t fight me! Why won’t anybody fight me?” — except instead of the opposing clan, with the Kurgan lurking among them, it’s a playground littered with children whose only option is to stick you in the back and scurry away.
Amid these rugrats, my chosen option is to respond sternly, addressing any adults lurking nearby:
Is that all you’ve got?
When any of you want to get serious, we’re easy to find. We can be found at the adult table, talking ideas. Feel free to engage us any time.