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Yes, That IS All They’ve Got

April 30th, 2012 by Jim May · 26 Comments · Uncategorized

“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.


Any time.

26 Comments so far ↓

  • Ayn Rand discussion theater — Kayak2U Blog

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  • L-C

    When I first read that Ayn Rand had stopped looking for intelligent disagreement, I was a bit taken aback. I’ve since come to know exactly what she meant. From all my observations and discussions the signal-to-noise ratio here appears to be 0:1.

    So, any time indeed. But it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

  • Michael

    how do you explain her view of native americans?

  • Bill Brown

    I think another reaction to this sort of sniping is dismissal. The sort that values independent thought is not going to care that some stick-figure comic strip “artist” doesn’t like a book he values. “His loss” was my first thought at seeing the comic, which I stopped reading long ago.

  • Steve D

    ‘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.’

    But if we only discuss ideas, then the Objectivists would win all the arguements and that simply would NOT be fair!

  • Inspector

    “how do you explain her view of native americans?”

    What explanation does it require? The main objections to her view appear to me to be nothing more than knee-jerks based on Postmodernist-revisionist-history propaganda programming that people were taught instead of actual history.

    So it’s not a question of explaining her view… it’s a question of breaking that programming.

  • Richard

    Okay well this is a typical phenomenon Objectivists encounter in the public realm. (And I think it’s true).

    So now that I think about it; what do you guys think is the most serious and sincerely thoughtful criticism Rand’s ideas have encountered?

  • Bill Brown

    Personally, I think the best criticism of Rand’s ideas have come from the Kelley-Branden-and-their-ilk crowd. They are very familiar with her philosophy; they do a very capable job of showing where their views diverge from hers. Now if they’d only stop calling themselves Objectivists…

  • Jim May

    Richard, I’ve often thought of posting a “bleg” on precisely that question: who are the real critics of Objectivism, whose criticism are of the actual ideas, and are actually well thought-out, at least?

    That would yield a far more manageable (i.e. short) list than the alternative.

  • John McVey

    Panel one:

    (Stick figure One, walking into the scene, head pointing downwards a bit and a small curlicue of fume above): “Objectivists are ASSHOLES!”

    (Stick figure Two, formerly just minding his own business, now puzzled and having turned to face One): ” … Why?”

    Panel two:

    (Stick figure One, with arms raised straight and high in the air): “Because they got furiously anti-social when I told them about plans to take their stuff and tell them what to do!”

    (Stick figure Two, arms folded): “The *nerve* of some people…”

    Panel three:

    (Stick figure One has become engrossed in examining some chain and leg-irons)

    (Stick figure Two, a bit worried): “Uhhhh… what’s with the chains?”

    Panel four:

    (Stick figure One, looking up at Two again): “They’re for The Greater Good!”

    (Stick figure Two, beginning to make a hasty exit): “… oh, look at the time, gotta run! Bye!”

    Mouse-over text:

    I once tried to watch some movie with a socialist intellectual as the main protagonist. I left after a quarter hour because wierd-ass gothic horror flicks from Germany aren’t my thing.

  • Inspector

    On an unrelated note, the title made me smile.

    This IS all they’ve got.

    Reminds me of a favorite quote around my house: “Yes, fat man: this IS how we get you.”

  • Michael

    On the point of native Americans,I think it can be said that she erred in treating all Indian groups as identical

  • Inspector

    I’d have to check again before I could confirm or deny if she had done that. You would be surprised.

    As for the issue itself, I think I know what you’re referring to and if we’re thinking about the same thing, I agree – there were the civilized tribes that Andrew Jackson basically put on a death march. But, from what I understand, Andrew Jackson was a bit of a horse’s ass. I think Rand would agree with that sentiment, if not my choice of words. But, then, you never know.

  • Michael

    In terms of conceiving or conceptualizing rights, did the Native Americans exist even in the same universe? That’s my interpretation of what Rand is saying.

    Binswanger also argues that the Indians had use-rights to their immediate surroundings and possessions but they did not have ownership-rights.

  • Inspector

    Yes, sounds about right.

  • Steve D

    So it leaves the question of how the Europeans should have treated with the Natives?

  • Michael

    well, George Washington and much of subsequent US policy encouraged assimilation to civilized culture. Forced removal was actually against official policy in most circumstances, it was just that some, mostly in the South, disobeyed the policy. That is not to say that some Indian tribes were not wrongly dispossessed of the land, but we also need to look at it from the perspective that Native Americans’ conceptualization of property rights was essentially non-existent. This obviously made it very difficult for cultures to coexist under such competing views of property, especially when one considers that almost all the land that is now the USA was unclaimed.

  • Inspector

    Correct, Michael.

    Steve, you have to remember that Jackson’s action against the civilized tribes was the exception and not the rule. Let’s set that aside.

    So, with that off the table, what exactly would you say that the early USA did wrong? Violent tribes were met with violence. Others were allowed to settle or take their lack of understanding of property rights west, which they did. Realistic expectations of homesteading were met with benign policy (except Jackson), while unrealistic ones… generally resulted in conflict. Unfortunate, but hardly anything you can call the Natives blameless in.

    Absent Jackson’s douchebaggery, I can’t think of any particular place to say, “the early USA did such a bad job that I can criticize it here.” Did you have one in mind?

  • c andrew

    I have to say that I thought the US Army treated the Nez Perce rather shabbily and in very arbitrary fashion as per here…

  • Mike

    “That is not to say that some Indian tribes were not wrongly dispossessed of the land, but we also need to look at it from the perspective that Native Americans’ conceptualization of property rights was essentially non-existent.”

    And even that varied by region, as did the policy taken by English settlers. In New England, for example, the Puritans generally settled on and purchased unoccupied land (some of it depopulated by European diseases, some of it land belonging to a particular tribe but not in use–while there wasn’t personal ownership of land, there was as a general rule communal ownership and individual rights of occupation and use), at least until King Philip’s War (1675), for they viewed the Indians there as rightfully possessing their land despite not being Christians, by and large. See, for example, Alden Vaughan’s New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675. And that collective ownership or use manifested itself in such customs as annual forest fires throughout New England that burned out the undergrowth and made the forests ideal for hunting game–later New Englanders looked back on those burned-out forests as primordial untouched wilderness, but in fact they were carefully cultivated large-scale projects of the Indians that greatly altered the ecology of the region. (See, for example, the first few chapters of William Cronin’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. I might add that I’m not a great fan of Cronin as he’s generally green, but he’s more scholarly and honest than much of that group.)

    In other regions, Indians were fair game for slaving, especially if they were opponents of the English settlers’ allied tribes, or were allied with the French, in which case they became pawns in European power politics. See, for example, Alan Gallay’s The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717. For example, if you look at the population records for South Carolina, you find that it was in 1709 that the number of African slaves (mostly men) first exceeded the number of English settlers…and that (if memory serves) about one-fouth of the slave population was Indian–and usually women since they were less likely to run away, and usually seized by English allies rather than the English themselves from more distant tribes and traded to the English; the resulting intermarriage is thought to be one of the main routes by which Indian agricultural techniques and the like passed to black slaves, for “soul food” is largely a vestige of southeast Indian culture, not African culture (techniques for rice cultivation, on the other hand, were transplanted from West African cultures).

    And don’t forget that much of the history of the interactions between English and then Americans with the Indians was shaped by the differing institutions and cultures of the different Indian tribes. This is the sort of commonplace comment that PC addicts of pseudo-history like to spout before ignoring it entirely in their recastings of the myth of the noble savage. In New England, for example, the Puritans got along fairly well with many (not all) of the Algonquian-speaking tribes there, but their relations with the Iroquois League were much less settled–in part because of the political structure of the League. It is sometimes mentioned that Benjamin Franklin had official dealings with them in, I think, 1744, and some of their political institutions shaped his own considerations of the American political system later, and occasionally it is mentioned that he did not, however, try to replicate the women’s council that helped determine Iriquois policy, as if that somehow reflects the greater feminist credentials of the Iriquois. In fact, the women’s council was a major destabilizing force in Iriquois politics because the women, usually old matriarchs, would refuse to accept political arrangements the men made with foreigners for essentially petty reasons of family dignity and history. See, for example, Daniel Richter’s The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization.

    And more generally, British policy was based on the view that the Indians owned their land as a collective, and treaties had to be made with the tribe leadership; American policy in the early republic generally followed the same lines but was more accepting of treaties purchasing land form the Indians to allow settlement (don’t forget that the British refusal to allow settlement west of the Alleghanies after 1763 was a major bone of contention with the colonies), though this changed somewhat later. And a major cause of conflict in all such treaties was the fact that tribal leaders frequently did not possess the political authority within the tribe that the British and then Americans expected from living in states with strong executives. Quite often subordinate tribes would refuse to accept the treaties decided by the nominal heads and attack settlers who settled on the basis of the treaties, after which the army would retaliate to enforce compliance; one western historian (Sonnenschein, I think) put it well when he said that in Western history roughtly 98% of each side was honest-dealing and peacable, but the other 2% were SOBs, and unfortunately while the American SOBs could call in the state to settle their wrongs, the Indians could not, and that was the dynamic running through much of the history of the West. (I can’t recall the title of the book, but it was something like Reflections of a Western Historian.) Of course, some parts of the West did see continuations of Jackson’s Indian policies–relations with the Indian tribes during the Republic of Texas, for example, where the viciousness of the Cherokees made transplanted Southerners who were already enamoured of Jackson take a hard line with all of the Indian tribes, however peaceful and settled.)

  • Michael

    and speaking of Jackson, after reading his biography I do not feel particularly sorry for any of the Indians he was involved in killing considering it all took place during wars
    either with the British (whom the Indians were allied with) or with the Indians themselves.

    I think it is also important to point out that the trail of tears and the removal of the Cherokees occurred under Martin Van Buren, and is quite
    a complicated and interesting story of Indian divisions and ideas of integration.

  • Inspector

    “And a major cause of conflict in all such treaties was the fact that tribal leaders frequently did not possess the political authority within the tribe that the British and then Americans expected from living in states with strong executives.”


    You have to consider a lot of the contexts which Leftist “historians” ignore. One being, the problem of making treaties with people who don’t have the kind of centralized authority that would even make that feasible. So, you have groups of Indians who don’t recognize the treaties, and make border raids. How was the US government supposed to react to this? Even in the cases where raids were provoked by lawbreaking settlers, that still doesn’t make random attacks against white people because other white people did stuff a justified response. Or, more to the point, a particularly good idea on the part of the Indians; escalation of hostilities was essentially suicide by cop. Again, can the US be blamed for this? I would say no.

    The other unconsidered context being a refusal to examine critically the idea of any particular land claim being realistic in the first place. Remove all of the maudlin talk about ancestral land and spiritual this-and-that, and what do you have? Imagine, for example, a group of 800 or so non-Indian squatters laying claim to around 8 million acres which they haven’t developed and have no intention of ever developing. Is that a realistic claim? Would any homesteader be able to make that claim? If not, why are we so critical of the US for renegotiating such treaties?

    I’m not saying that the above is by any means definitive in describing what happened; far from it. It’s just that these are the kinds of unasked questions which Leftist historians obfuscate.

  • Michael

    The primary sources reveal a complicated story of inter-neccine feuds amongs the Cherokees themselves and a refusal to accept reality which led them to ignore years of pleas to prepare for the trek westward. When Winfield Scott arrived to escort them west, he found a people who had been told by their leaders that if they refused to prepare food and supplies for the journey west they might be spared at the last moment. They were, of course, mistaken.

    I believe that Jackson’s attitude towards the Indians was far more complex than one of unthinking and/or homicidal hated and belligerency

  • Inspector

    “I believe that Jackson’s attitude towards the Indians was far more complex than one of unthinking and/or homicidal hated and belligerency”

    I will grant this possibility – the education establishment that endowed me with my understanding of the Trail of Tears was not exactly unbiased or above rewriting history. I was taught a very different version of all the other events, as well – it would hardly surprise me if this one was also a distortion.

  • Michael

    Robert V. Remini’s three volume biography on Jackson is the best–it’s also out in a condensed one volume version.

  • c andrew


    Here’s a similar problem in the same area but without the distraction of aboriginal rights.

    McFerrin and Wills argue the confrontation represented opposing property rights systems.