Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Smile, Little Objectivist!

It only takes two muscles. In other words, here goes the next chapter in my most excellent adventure with the Objectivists.

Came across this joke. I guess as jokes can't be copyrighted, I can reproduce it here in full:

A shipwreck occurs. The survivors swim from the ship to a nearby island. Two Englishmen swim ashore and go to opposite ends of the island because they have not been properly introduced. Two Germans swim ashore and set out to build an autobahn to connect the extreme parts of the island. Two Americans swim ashore and open up a fast food chain. Two Frenchmen swim ashore and look for someone to surrender to. Two Objectivists swim ashore and set up three discussion blogs, one for each to post on and the third neither will have anything to do with. [*]

* In the original version of the joke, two Jews swim ashore and build three synagogues. One that each attends and the third that neither will set foot in.

Is there some hidden truth in here? Among Libertarians, there were and are many Jews like Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand. That's little wonder, as Jews have been persecuted for so long they must know best how dangerous government is.

Yet I wonder if that alleged Jewish thing with the three synagogues has something to do with Objectivists' taste for schisms? I guess not. After all, every religion knows schisms. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and the countless flavors of Protestants. Sunnis and Shiites.

I guess it doesn't even take a religion to bring about a schism. All it takes is people taking beliefs or ideas seriously (as Objectivists rightly do). If someone considers an idea vital, he will fight tooth and nail for it, as he thinks or believes his (after) life depends on it.

The problem is rather Rand's all or nothing approach that forces her followers to excommunicate everyone who disagrees with them on a single, even non-vital, issue. Another problem is their slightly too zealous confidence in the efficacy of the human mind, bordering on claiming papal infallibility. Once something fundamental is proven, it is proven. Even if it was "proven" by sophistry in the first place. In that respect Objectivists are little better than the global warming crowd.

However, there is one other lesson Objectivists can learn from that joke: the value of humor. Rand was pretty anal about her commandment that her followers should never make light of serious matters, least of all of their own lives and values, as that would be like "spitting in your own face."

Obviously, not all Objectivists obey St. Ayn's commandment against dark humor. Evidence: I found that joke making fun of Objectivist schisms on an Objectivist website, presumably posted by an Objectivist.

Anyways, Rand must have been oblivious of an old Jewish practice that would have made her and could still make those Capital-O Objectivists less uptight and more resilient: gallows humor. As Jews have been persecuted and murdered at least since Roman times, they had plenty of time and occasions to hone their dark humor.

Here three examples harvested on the fly from Wikipedia:

After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, a government official in Ukraine menacingly addressed the local rabbi, "I suppose you know in full detail who was behind it."

"Ach," the rabbi replied, "I have no idea, but the government's conclusion will be the same as always: they will blame the Jews and the chimneysweeps."

"Why the chimneysweeps?" asked the befuddled official.

"Why the Jews?" responded the rabbi.

* * *

During the days of oppression and poverty of the Russian shtetls, one village had a rumor going around: a Christian girl was found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gathered at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi came running up, and cried, "Wonderful news! The murdered girl was Jewish!"

* * *

Down South during World War II, a sergeant gets a telephone call from a woman. "We would love it," she said, "if you could bring five of your soldiers over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner."

"Certainly, ma'am," replied the sergeant.

"Oh... just make sure they aren't Jews, of course," said the woman.

"Will do," replied the sergeant. So that Thanksgiving while the woman is baking, the doorbell rings. She opens her door and, to her horror, five black soldiers are standing in front of her.

"Oh, my!" she exclaimed. "I'm afraid there's been a terrible mistake!"

"No ma'am," said one of the soldiers. "Sergeant Rosenbloom never makes mistakes!"

Gallows humor does not necessarily mean that you give up, that you consider the situation fucked up beyond all recovery, that your head is already on the block. Of course, sometimes it is. When Thomas More was about to be executed for messing with Henry VIII's latest close, he told the executioner, "I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."

But usually, gallows humor does not presuppose a real gallows you cannot escape. On the contrary, it serves a valuable function in human existence. Yet too many Objectivists blindly follow Rand's commandment, depriving themselves of that tool, living bleak and joyless lives with their own capacity to overcome obstacles and survive hampered by another piece of dogma.

The point is, you can either cry or laugh at death and disaster. (And here I cannot make myself refrain from quoting Billy Joel: "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints — the sinners are much more fun.") You can either go out of your mind or apply a safety device to save yourself.

This safety device is humor, "the piercing and sobering effect, the sane perspective, provided by humor," as Rothbard had it. Gallows humor acts as a safety valve. Gallows humor keeps you from going crazy. By belittling apparently insurmountable challenges it makes them look manageable. So instead of blowing a fuse and going postal or just sitting there with a vacant stare, going "Ba-ba-ba-ba…" you get a chance to regain your presence of mind, to deal with whatever threatens your life or values.

Look at it like this: You're a Jew in a concentration camp. Now you can either go for the nearest SS guards and try to take a couple of them along with you by going for their soft tissue with your bare hands before they murder you. Or you use the safety valve of gallows humor, stay calm, and make a plan how to escape or at least how to try to survive till help arrives.

As I said before, gallows humor does not imply the unimportance of life or of values, but the (hopefully) relative powerlessness of evil.

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