Ben Carson, A Hero of Medicine

We just rented and watched Gifted Hands, the story of neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Johns Hopkins. It’s a fantastic film. In today’s cinematic world of mindless action, dumb comedy, and grotesque horror, here is a different sort of movie, a movie about a true hero, someone who made medical history with his innovative brain surgeries.

Dr. Carson says in a documentary accompanying the film, “It will show the incredible power of education and what it can do for a person. How it can take a person from a life of virtually nothing to the pinnacle of one of the toughest professions in the world.”

Carson grew up in poverty. Though illiterate, his mother drove her sons to educational excellence, requiring them to report on books from the library. Carson overcame struggles in school and racial prejudice to achieve an outstanding education and take the path to medicine.

The film has an obvious religious theme and emphasizes Carson’s religious faith. What drives the heroic story, though, is Carson’s dedication to learning and to his career goals. Well worth viewing.

Fall Harvest

It has been snowing and raining today, so it feels like winter is upon us. Hidden on my camera, however, were some nice photos of the fall’s harvest.

This year’s garden was thrown together. We were in the middle of working on the house (which we’re still doing), and we planted late in mediocre soil. Still, we had a garden, and we did pretty well given our limitations. We got good produce from our 48 tomato plants, and we also had some summer and winter squash. Next year I plan to do considerably better.

By the way, the basil is from our wonderful indoor plant. Also by the way, today I turned a couple of butternut squash (one purchased, one from the garden) into a fabulous soup.




Vampire Haiku

The Denver Post is running a weekly contest for writing haikus. This week the topic is vampires. The only rule is that the verse must follow the 5-7-5 syllable structure. Here’s my entry (which my wife, at least, thought was funny):

Vampires suck my blood?
No, they suck my wallet dry
at cheesy movies.

Here’s the rest of the entries, for those interested.

Activism and Writing Letters to the Editor

I led an “Activism and LTE Workshop” October 6 (thank to the Independence Institute for lending me the space). Here are my modified notes.

The type of activism we should pursue is Intellectual Activism, marked by presenting reasonable arguments based on logic and evidence to the public. The goal is to reach active minds in the culture through various means of communication.

Intellectual activism may be contrasted with a couple of bad types of activism. Intimidation is what we think of regarding the typical far-left protest, where the goal is to scare people, break property, and throw stuff at police. Any sort of threat or violence falls into this sort of bad activism.

Sophistic or postmodern activism uses language as a battering ram or a weapon to change policies, irrespective of the facts. This is the modern version of what the Greek Sophists did: use language to persuade people through deceit and trickery rather than through sound arguments. On the left, this sort of activism is marked by postmodernism, using language as a social tool rather than as a means of conveying the truth. This sort of activism involves distorting statistics, cherry picking data, taking quotes out of context, and pushing logical fallacies. This sort of activism often relies upon crafting some “narrative” to spin one’s policies or vilify one’s opponents, as with calling opponents of Obamacare an unruly mob. Closely related is the obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories.

The primary goal of intellectual activism is to present the case for liberty and individual rights to the public. Generally this is done by presenting arguments in written or oral form. Other goals of intellectual activism can be to promote a positive article, person, or group, or to draw attention to some cause.

Many types of activism can be good or bad depending on the context. For example, rallies can be great, but if the participants are off message they can be counterproductive. Partisanship, or beating up the other side, can be appropriate if partisan attacks are rooted in the facts and if they put principles above politics.

So what are the types of intellectual activism? This can best be seen in graphic form (thanks to my wife Jennifer for creating the image):


The image illustrates the roots of activism, the main three divisions — activist training, politics, and mass communication — and the written and oral branches of mass communication.

Note that one particular campaign of intellectual activism can involve multiple branches. For example, promoting a good article written by an ally might involve writing a blog post, posting a social media link, and mentioning the article in a letter to an elected official.

Obviously, intellectual activists generally specialize in a few branches, though a well-rounded activist can swing easily among various branches.

Writing letters to the editor is one small branch of the tree, but it is an important one. The ability to write a good letter to the editor is an essential skill of any good activist. If you can write a good letter, you can also write a good blog post, learn to write a good op-ed, and translate your skills to oral communication. That is why the workshop I led focussed on developing this skill.

I recorded my presentation on writing letters, so I’ll turn the reader over to those YouTube videos. Some of my material finds inspiration on the article by Robert W. Tracinski, “How to Write an Effective Letter to the Editor.”

Part 1

Part 2

Ryan Frazier Appears Set to Switch Races

A few hours ago Ryan Frazier, candidate for U.S. Senate, commented on his Twitter feed: “Hi everyone, I’m going to be making a big announcement this week. Stay tuned for more details.”

Ben DeGrow writes: “My guess? Fundraising numbers for the third quarter were less than stellar, and higher-ups in the party finally had the leverage to persuade Frazier to take a stab at the 7th Congressional District instead.”

This is so obvious I’m stunned I didn’t think of it before. Last month I speculated that Frazier might jump races to lieutenant governor. But there’s one huge problem with that: Scott McInnis and Josh Penry are duking it out for the Republican nomination for governor. Plus, it’s sort of a lame position, especially for someone with Frazier’s political hunger.

Perhaps I didn’t think of congress because I think of the Seventh as Arvada, not Aurora. But look at the map. It is a strangely drawn district that goes right around Denver.

I personally like Brian Campbell, the guy currently in the race on the GOP side. But I never seriously thought Campbell had a chance to beat out Ed Perlmutter, who has walked over his opponents with ease.

A Frazier run against Perlmutter means that the Colorado GOP has a serious chance to pick off three big Democrats: Governor Bill Ritter (via Penry or McInnis), Senator Michael Bennet (via Jane Norton), and Perlmutter. Suddenly the best-case scenario for Republicans looks very good indeed.

Unfortunately, I know very little about Norton, except that she worked for Bill Owens, which means that she’s at least strongly associated with the tax-and-spend “Country Club” wing of the GOP. Apparently she’s against abortion.

I know a bit more about Frazier. He’s better than most Republicans on economic matters — which is sort of like saying he smells better than Roquefort. He supports domestic partnerships for gay couples. And he seems to personally oppose abortion without getting too excited about banning it.

Frazier’s socially moderate views will play much better in the metro ‘burbs than they would play in rural Weld County or in El Paso, home of Focus on the Family. And the House seems a much more plausible step up for a city councilor.

I suppose we will see very soon whether the official story matches the obvious scenario.

Frazier Favors Tax Cuts, ‘Stimulus,’ Public-Private Partnerships

Does Ryan Frazier support genuinely free markets or not? I had been under the vague impression that he does, but reports of a recent interview suggest that Frazier supports Keynesian “stimulus” spending and public-private partnerships, which violate economic liberty. So what is the straight scoop?

Ben DeGrow pointed out an article by David Thielen republished by the Huffington Post pointing out that Frazier favored “stimulus” spending for transportation and education in addition to public-private partnerships.

I was a little surprised by DeGrow’s kid-glove treatment of the candidate: “Solutions-oriented? Definitely. Committed to limited government principles? An opportunity for a clarifying follow-up discussion.”

If Frazier can’t clarify his basic views in an hour-long interview, I doubt a “follow-up discussion” will shed more light on the matter.

But is Thielen’s summary accurate? I was surprised that his “interview” contained not a single direct quote. Might “Liberal and Loving It” Thielen be skewing Frazier’s remarks? Thankfully, on his original post, Thielen offers a link to download the audio file of the interview.

After a discussion of food and personal background (and a telling remark from Thielen that he regards certain “libertarians” as to the right of Genghis Khan), Frazier at 17 minutes, 42 seconds into the recorded conversation discusses his general principles:

There were certain principles that attracted me to the Republican Party. … [Something] the free enterprise system. [There’s a lot of background noise with the recording, making parts of it difficult to understand.] … Fiscal responsibility. And protect the rights of the individual. And in doing so you protect the rights of the community.

Frazier discussed the “fiscal responsibility that I think will in the long term help create a better America for our children.”

At 19 minutes, 48 seconds, Frazier says:

For me, there are a couple things that are absolutely, I think critical to a stronger, better, safer America. Obviously it starts with the economy. At the end of the day, [if] a person can’t keep a roof over their head and lights on and provide clothes for their children’s back… Trust me, I know, I grew up in a difficult environment. And, for me, that ought to be the focus for all of us. That ought to be one of the primary things that any of us who seek to represent the people focus on. That is, how do we continue to enact policies, or restraining government, such that the economy, and the ability for it to flourish, is sustainable. …

I would look to leaders who have demonstrated the ability to do that. I think one of the Democrats’ very best… is JFK. … If you read some of his speeches, things he pushed for, I think a lot of those things are true today, as much as they were true then, in 1962. For instance… he gave an address to the economic club on New York in 1962. I thought it was one of the best addresses I’ve heard, period. And in effect what he says … [is] the single largest thing that the federal government can do to aid economic growth is to create an environment for private consumption and investment…

He goes on to say to cut the fetters of… [the] private sphere. And he goes on to make a case for the types of things, given the circumstances, given the environment — i.e., you have an economy that is trying to find it’s footing, that has a potential to grow much more — that can be done to assist in that effort. And he in this case advocates for tax relief for everyone, both personal and corporate income tax relief. …

If you want to truly, really stimulate your economy, one of the greatest ways is to reduce, even if it’s momentarily, reduce any barriers… to private consumption and investment. … So what does that look like? … You look at ways that you can reduce taxation on everyone. Not just one segment of society, but everyone, in order to stimulate private consumption, which ultimately leads to a growing economy. And you also incentivize… investment in additional equipment… and technology. …

Obviously I’m a Republican because I believe in a more limited government, which is not the same thing as no government. There is a role for government, and I’ll have that conversation with anybody who believes otherwise. … But the question is, what is that role, and what extent ought that role to be?

At this point, I was thinking to myself, Jesus, Thielen; you wandered into a gold mine and came out with a few shiny lumps of coal. But I give him credit for conducting an interesting interview. At 24 minutes, 30 seconds, Thielen asked Frazier what positive role he sees for government in the economy. Frazier replied:

A limited government is not no government. So I think you have to articulate what are those limited roles, and what is it that government can or properly should be doing. I happen to be an advocate for public-private partnerships. I think that is a great solution for a lot of the challenges we face in this country. Whether it’s FasTracks here locally, and looking at public-private partnerships there, or other projects where the private sector and the public sector can come together to help further the improvement of our community. It makes a lot of sense to me. … I think transportation is one of the perhaps single largest areas for public-private partnerships in this country and right here in Colorado.

At 29 minutes, 32 seconds, Thielen asks, “Well let me ask you about the present downturn… There were a lot of things that fed into it. But the thing that made this thing just horrendous is credit disappeared. … Cutting taxes doesn’t do squat for getting the credit unstuck. … Do you think what they did up to now was a reasonably good attempt to address it?”

Frazier replied:

I’m not sure that tax relief doesn’t do squat. Because one of the reasons that credit markets are so tight… is there continues to be a lack of confidence in where the economy will go. Will we start to produce, will we start to flourish, or will we continue to… either stagnate or perhaps move in the south direction? That’s a factor in credit markets that perhaps is less tangible but exists…

Tax relief… is a part of the solution ultimately in getting the economy going. But what we’re able to achieve, if we’re able to stimulate the economy, is confidence. … What I’m advocating for is looking ways in which government perhaps can reduce… taxation on business and to the individual in order to incentivize private consumption and investment in industry.

At minute marker 33, Frazier discusses federal “stimulus” spending:

The results have not quite been what has been expected or touted. … I believe that that stimulus package would have been better suited had it focused more on infrastructure and development in this country. … Six percent actually went towards transportation infrastructure. … I believe that that was insufficient. If you want to do a stimulus package and you’re seeking to build longer-lasting jobs, it seemed to me that, if you’re not going to look at investment tax credits or, somehow, tax relief for everyone, that you ought to invest in infrastructure, in transportation. … The state of transportation in this country… is bad. … And so it seemed to me that a larger portion, a much larger portion, of the stimulus package, should have been directed toward infrastructure, which would have created a lot of jobs that I believe would have been around longer, had a much larger impact on the economy…

In response to Thielen’s comments about the usefulness of “stimulus” spending for things like education and national parks as well, Frazier responds, “That’s true. I think, when you look at the cost-benefit… transportation infrastructure and education would have probably made the most sense.”

At 38 minutes, 7 seconds, Frazier offers an interesting qualifier:

I agree with you, that productivity ultimately ultimately will increase the economy… That said, the question is how best do you achieve that… I think that’s the debate in the country, is, do you believe that more government spending will result in that? It possibly could. I’m sure you could point to points in our history where that had worked. … There are more instances in history where you could point to how you, not necessarily reduce government, but you reduce the perceived burden of government on individuals and on business, which ultimately leads to… private consumption and investment…

The upshot is that the initial reports were accurate: Frazier explicitly advocated “private-public partnerships” and “stimulus” spending for transportation and education. That Frazier used TaxTracks as his lead example of an allegedly successful public-private partnership did surprise me. (I stopped listening at about the forty minute marker, when Thielen strangely asked about the difference between a scientific fact and theory, so somebody else might want to listen to the rest of the recording for additional insights.)

Obviously Frazier is more enthusiastic about lowering taxes, and less enthusiastic about “stimulus” spending, than many Democrats. His view of “stimulus” spending during a recession is not that it’s always necessary, but that it’s sometimes useful. He showed serious interest in limiting federal spending to particular, widely popular sorts of projects. So Frazier is not as bad as Barack Obama or George W. Bush when it comes to violating economic liberty on the alter of Keynesian economics.

But Frazier still has some deep problems. I’ll discuss two of his problems briefly, one of economics and one of political philosophy.

“Stimulus” spending is on net destructive to the economy despite its prejudicial title. It is more accurately called welfare spending, and often it is corporate welfare. Candidates are less inclined to admit they endorse corporate welfare than they are to claim they favor “stimulus” spending.

Forced wealth transfers deprive the voluntary economy of critically needed resources. Frazier is right that lack of confidence is a big problem: and the biggest contributer to this lack of confidence is a federal government intent on imposing capricious and ever-changing controls on the economy. The economy still suffers under the looming threats of cap-and-trade and a political health takeover, to mention just two examples. So the federal government should get the hell out of the way of economic recovery, then it should give people the freedom to invest their own resources as they see fit. Tragically named “stimulus” spending only interferes with the recovery process. At best it creates less-productive make-work that contributes little to long-term recovery while squandering resources.

Then there is the Constitutional problem. If there is an argument for spending federal tax dollars on transportation and education, as Frazier advocates, it has nothing to do with “stimulating” the economy, for again the wealth is forcibly transfered away from voluntary exchanges. But Article I, Section 8 doesn’t even mention education as an approved federal function, and it mentions only “post roads” regarding transportation “infrastructure.” Apparently Frazier is of the “fluid Constitution” school.

The more fundamental issue is the basic one of political philosophy. DeGrow talks about “limited government.” Thielen discusses a “role for government” — without bothering to define what that role should be. Frazier combines the two vague phrases, apparently on the theory that the solution to ambiguity is to compound it.

What conservatives and “liberals” hardly ever discuss is what they think government is fundamentally for. Saying we need “more” or “less” government, robust or “limited” government, evades the central issue. Invoking vague phrases such as “the common welfare” begs the question of what constitutes welfare and when welfare is properly common. Everyone (save nihilists and self-refuting anarchists) wants both a robust and a limited government: a government that does very well whatever it is it should be doing and that doesn’t do whatever it should leave alone. The critical question is, what purposes does a government properly serve?

My view, rooted in classical liberal theory and the more recent ideas of Ayn Rand, is that the proper role of government is to protect individual rights, including those of property and voluntary association. Thus, so-called “stimulus” spending is not only economic folly but moral depravity. I want government to robustly protect individual rights, and I want government limited to that function.

Perhaps in some future interview Frazier will offer his answer to this fundamental question, then explain how that answer relates to his particular policy prescriptions.

James Warner Shares Light of Liberty

The following article originally was published October 12, 2009, by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

James Warner shares light of liberty

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

The Hanoi Hilton. That’s what we called the Prisoners of War camps in Vietnam. Thankfully, though your elder author Linn served in that war, he never got room service at the Hilton.

James Warner was not so lucky. When helping to set up a talk Warner gave in town last month, Linn learned that during the war Warner was imprisoned 650 miles to the north.

Several years ago, Linn met Captain Gerald M. Coffee, who spent over seven years in solitary confinement, the second longest imprisonment in northern Vietnam. Linn asked Warner whether he knew Coffee.

“Of course I knew of him, we spent several years together at the Hilton,” Warner said. “You don’t know someone when your only communication is tap tap, tap tap.” The prisoners had developed a code to communicate with each other.

During the conversation Linn was taken back to thoughts of the great friends that he got to know, such as Tracy and Redman. Yes, a band of brothers.

Warner, former legal council to the National Rifle Association, spoke at the annual Informed Gun Owners conference last month, an event hosted by the Pro Second Amendment Committee.

He titled his talk, “From the Hanoi Hilton to the White House: How I learned the Value of Freedom in a Communist Prison.”

Warner was held by force. He held his audience captive for ninety minutes with the power of his life’s story. Warner showed little personal bitterness toward the pilot who, Warner believes, made a mistake that cost him his freedom and gave comfort to the enemy camp.

Warner has written, “I was put in a cement box with a steel door, which sat out in the tropical summer sun. There, I was put in leg irons which were then wired to a small stool. In this position I could neither sit nor stand comfortably. Within 10 days, every muscle in my body was in pain (here began a shoulder injury which is now inoperable). The heat was almost beyond bearing. My feet had swollen, literally, to the size of footballs. I cannot describe the pain. When they took the leg irons off, they had to actually dig them out of the swollen flesh.”

Warner and his fellow prisoners would remember each other’s names, so that if one got out he could inform the families of those still held. This was the first time that many would learn whether their loved one was still alive.

Some of the POWs would remember great works of literature, surprised by how much of a reading or poem they could recall. Some thought of philosophy, remembering the historical importance that the Greeks played in saving the idea of the individual.

Warner wrote a text on math. He had to steal empty cigarette containers from the guards, soak the containers in water until the sheets of paper separated, and then compress the sheets under his straw mat until dry. Several times guards confiscated the pages, and Warner had to start again. But Warner completed the work and brought it back. It now resides at the Marine POW museum.

Warner, commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1966, volunteered for duty in Vietnam the next year. He flew more than 100 missions before enemy fire shot down his VMFA-323 just north of the Demilitarized Zone on October 13. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner. His chest full of metals, including a Sliver Star and two Purple Hearts, only begin to reveal the heart inside the chest.

Warner continued to unfold his life’s story. One could see and feel the spirit of the old warrior as he leaned on his cane.

Warner served as Domestic Policy Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, focusing on economic and health policy issues. You can thank Warner every time you drive down I-70, as he helped repeal the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. Warner has also won the H. L. Mencken award defending the First Amendment and gone to the Supreme Court defending the Second Amendment.

Warner joined a long line of great speakers brought to our community by the Pro Second Amendment Committee. Past speakers include David Kopel, lead scholar for the Independence Institute; Suzanna Gratia-Hupp, who advocated concealed carry after witnessing her parents’ murder in Texas; John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime; and former Sheriff Riecke Claussen.

After listening to Warner talk about his experiences and answer questions, the audience seemed emotionally drained, horrified by the details of Warner’s imprisonment and inspired by his continued resolve.

Warner said he has dedicated his life to the never-ending battle for freedom. Warner went through years of living hell, then went back to work defending freedom in America. Most of us have only to read about the issues and articulate the case for liberty. May we, like Warner, show the fortitude to overcome adversity and fight for our principles.

Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari, edits from the Denver area.

Media Panel: Discussion Continues

The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition hosted a media panel September 24 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Previously I transcribed my opening comments and added a quick answer to a participant who asked whether she should enter journalism. Here I continue my review of the discussion.

First, though, as an aside, just yesterday I heard about the Nevada News Bureau, edited by conservative Elizabeth Crum (whom I met at the Sam Adams Alliance earlier this year). This service allows free, attributed reproduction of content. The about page states: “We’re launching this news service in part because the owners of newspapers and television news teams have, in many cases, cut back on statehouse reporting and investigative journalism which in turn has eroded their ability to be a true ‘watchdog’ for the voter and taxpayer. … The Nevada News Bureau is a non-profit project of Citizen Outreach, a 501(c)(3) exempt organization.” So, I don’t know anything about that nonprofit, and I don’t know what caliber of journalism the service will produce, but it struck me as an interesting model.

Now on with the media panel discussion. I’m pulling quotes from the longer recording, and again these quotes are slightly redacted to ease the transition to text.

Adrienne Russell added weight to my point that independent writers often conduct original journalism: “What are bloggers going to do if mainstream journalism dies [one of the questions asked]? I think anyone who knows anybody who is an online journalist knows many many cases of journalism stories that break into the larger news media landscape that actually originated in the blogosphere. And most often times, it’s not even traced back to that after the first couple hours or the first day.”

Russell continued:

I think what I want to try to focus on for my few minutes is…. [journalism’s] role as a public service or a public interest. … What is the future of newspapers? But I think what obviously we really should be asking is, what is the future of journalism, and its ability to facilitate, and further, and make for a healthy public discourse, in this democracy and all over the world. …

I think those two questions go hand in hand. But recently there have been all these stats that have come out, specifically one recently from the Pew Foundation… report that says that web traffic to the highest ranked news sites has gone up 27 percent from 2007 to 2008. And so what does that tell us? I’m actually not a huge stats fan, I usually don’t throw them around. I’m more of a cultural studies person. But what does that tell us? It tells us that people are still interested in news.

And also I recently read that the Columbia journalism program, the masters degree program, got almost twice as many applicants this year as they did last year, which also signifies something about our attitude, and our understanding, and our relationship with journalism in this country.

… I think that the question of the business model has to look beyond newspapers, and has to look at all of these great examples that are actually emerging and beginning to flourish. Like, whether or not you like the politics associated with them, or you think they could be sustained in this giant model, things like the Colorado Independent, the Huffington Post, Slate — there’s all these examples of journalism that is flourishing, that is serious journalism. … One of the better examples is ProPublica…

So probably what needs to happen is, traditional news organizations need to keep paying really close attention to what’s going on with these successful models, whether they be for profit or not for profit. …

Like Ari said, this is a time of innovation and great flourishing in terms of journalism, if not the journalism industry as we know it. And one of the reasons for this is that the new media technology, which is so often framed as threatening journalism as we know it, is creating these new possibilities for people to get involved in creating media. …

So I think embedded in one of your questions was this idea of, are we just going to be inundated with this information that hasn’t yet been debunked, and what are we going to do with it, and how are we going to… function without the filters that we’ve come to depend on. An the answer to this, to me, is that we’re all, not only having an increased capacity to create media, but in that process we’re learning how to assess it. So we’re learning — we have to learn a higher level of media literacy. So, in that way, we’re so much more engaged in the media landscape than we ever could be.

And the old model was great in certain respects, but I think we all know that it also privileged particular sectors of society, it propped up the status quo, it’s failed us in major ways. In ways I’m not sure that is possible anymore, given the dynamic environment where people are actually contributing. …

Dominic Graziano feared that his classes aren’t preparing future journalists for new media. He also said he thinks more people are applying to graduate school “because there’s no jobs.” Russell said at least “they must have a faith that there will be [jobs available] some day.”

Graziano continued:

The points that we’re making about how journalism — decent, investigative journalism — can still be seen on the internet… I truly believe that. … But, my problem as a student at least, is [this.] We can take this upon ourselves. Every citizen can take it upon themselves to look into whatever they believe deserves looking into, and write a story about it. The question is where does the money come from. As a blogger… you’re not going to get corporate sponsorship. …

I can spend weeks up on weeks researching a story, and doing interviews, and stuff like that, and post it up on my blog, and it can get picked up by CNN, or the Post, and they can spend eighty bucks as a freelancer. …

The problem with getting rid of corporate journalism is you get rid of the possibility of a salary. And when everybody’s working freelance hours on freelance budgets, we will see a decrease… What happens when we’re not covering everything? What happens when we can’t be at every [hearing?] in the courtroom? … Where are people going to get this information? … That’s really what concerns me the most about the future of journalism.

Ari talks about bloggers being able to provide feedback to content that’s being published. But when that content isn’t being published, when bloggers are responsible for all that content, it’s going to turn into very partisan arguments… People will visit the websites that either completely support what they already believe, or [are] completely against what they already believe, in order just to argue with it.

We need to focus a lot more on balanced reporting, fair reporting, in-depth reporting. And my fear, as a student, and as a journalist, is that as everything moves away from these media giants, is you lose the ability to pay somebody to do a good job.

I thought of the fact that newspapers of old tended to be overtly partisan, but I never saw the opportunity to discuss this point at the forum.

Wendy Norris followed:

… I think there is a crisis in our nation around critical thinking. And that hits on the editorial/journalistic side, and that hits on the readership side. People are too willing to believe whatever is delivered to them, whether it’s in the newspaper, or a blog, or on television. And I think Tom’s example of Justice Sotomayor is a very good example of that. It’s very easy to find that speech online and learn that those remarks were taken completely out of context.

And I think that we talk a lot in this country about First Amendment rights, but there are also responsibilities with the First Amendment. And I think that if we’re going to find a new way to deliver news content — and I’m a huge proponent of blowing up what we’ve got now and starting anew, because it just simply does not work in this era — then we need to be really honest about what it is that we’re trying to do and what it is as news consumers that we want.

Norris said that even when working with a nonprofit organization, “I had to fight constantly to do the kind of investigative reporting that I thought was important for this community to have access to.” She said that readers have a responsibility to support something better than fluff and sensationalism.

Greg Moore rounded out the introductory remarks:

I’m really surprised that so many people are out tonight. I think it’s great, and to see so many young people in the audience is really heartening.

The first question was, what will become of the newspaper business model in the next five to ten years? Is there any hope for advertising as a means of supporting original reporting? And then the whole thing about public or nonprofit subsidization.

I don’t believe, first, that we’re in a post-journalism era. We are not. And I don’t think we’ll ever be in a post-journalism era. It may take on different forms or be done by a disaggregated sort of collection of people like what we’re beginning to see now. But there’re always going to be things happening that we didn’t know, or that we’re intensely interested in. We’ll always be looking for people to help us understand what’s happening.

In the next five to ten years, I think that newspapers will be still around. I think there’s something about the authentication of an event that is really important. I’ll just give you an example. When Barack Obama won the election, that was posted online. But people were lined up in our lobby to get a newspaper. Why? Because 100 years from now, would you rather have a printout from this blog or whatever, or would you rather have a 92-point headline that declares the election of the first black president? That’s simple.

If your kid runs for 350 yards for the football game, do you want a printout that could have been manipulated or whatever, or would you want it in a newspaper? You’d want it in a newspaper.

So I think there’ll be newspapers. I think we’ll be smaller. I think we probably will come out less frequently. I think it’ll cost more. I think the notion of being a paper of record, of trying to cover every city council meeting and things of that nature, will increasingly be left to bloggers and other sort of independent gatherers of news and information. …

In terms of advertising being a means of supporting original [journalism]… right now advertising provides like 85 percent of our revenue. It’s still a huge, huge, huge driver. It’s a huge source of revenue. It’s going to be probably for a while. But I think our survival — and when I say survival I’m not talking about the newspaper, I’m talking about our ability to do journalism — I think we’ll have to shift to a different model. And I think that model is that the user will have to pay for the content that he or she consumes.

I don’t think that the cat is out of the bag. I think that the record industry sort of proved that, the music industry sort of proved that you can change people’s behavior. Napster, in the mid-1990s, everyone thought that would just sort of kill everything, and they put those people in jail, put them out of business, and now people pay for music. They do it differently — they don’t buy albums anymore, they buy singles, but they still pay a lot of money for music.

So I think there’s still hope for us, that we can sort of reverse this trend. As somebody said, I think the worst decision that was made by the owners of newspapers was to sort of be stampeded into giving away their content for free. But it doesn’t mean that it’s over.

In terms of public or nonprofit subsidization, I think it’s still an open question. We’re sort of like still the nascent stages of that. I stood on the advisory board of ProPublica, and I think that it’s a really interesting experiment. We’ve published some of their stories. I think they do good work. But they look more like old media than new media. I think that’s important to acknowledge.

I also think it’s really sort of hard assess what the future’s going to be like, because the people who work for ProPublica are some of the best old media print journalists ever. And so that whole thing about a firewall between the people who pay for the news operation and the people who gather the news operation is really scrupulously adhered to. …

Second question is about the internet. Is what we see on the internet from sources other than mainstream media really journalism? I will say, yeah, it is. It’s a different kind of journalism. But, when we put together our newspaper, it’s a menu of things. While I would not necessarily describe everything that’s being done by bloggers as journalism, I think it’s content generation. And it’s interesting content. Sometimes it does lead to stories in mainstream media.

And I might add that bloggers have existed since the beginning of newspapers; they wrote letters to the editor. … There’s always them, when you write a story, somebody out there who knows a lot about a little. They know a lot. And they can finds things you left out of a story, they can find things you got wrong. So bloggers don’t bother me. I don’t have any problem with blogging. But what will bloggers do and cable commentators do? They’ll just do what they’ve been doing. And hopefully they’ll do it a little bit better.

But here’s the big distinction. And you can deride corporate journalism if you want to. But the thing about corporate journalism is that you have a support structure to do tough things. That’s my lawyer, okay? I mean, I pay him a lot of money to open doors, to stop people from trying to prevent us from publishing stories. And the question is, what’s the structure an independent blogger has? What happens when you’re trying to write a really tough story, and they say, you know, I’m going to sue your butt off? I’m going to take your house, I’m going to take your car, I’m going to take everything? Does that journalism get done? Well, it’s much more likely with the sort of support structure that we have — corporate journalism — that we can. …

What do we need to do to keep the public service component of newspapers alive? We need money. You know, what I always say is, a free press ain’t free. It costs a lot of money to do journalism that matters.

And to your point, that newspapers or journalism has supported the status quo, I vigorously disagree with that. I think that newspapers and journalism is about challenging the status quo. It always has been. …

We’re not entering a post-journalism era. We are entering a post-fact era, where facts aren’t really that important to a lot of people. And I don’t mean that they don’t care about facts, they just care about the facts that agree with their position. And there’s this really interesting book that’s out that’s called… True Enough. And it talks about sort of the belief society, where people actually won’t let in information that challenges things that they believe, and only accept information that sort of supports their point. … So we’re in a post-fact era, and I think we run the risk of getting in really deep trouble by only letting in stuff that we agree with.

I think that one of the things that sort of contributes to a vigorous democracy is finding out about things that challenge your assumptions. That make you question what you believe. And I worry about the silo mentality that seems to be developing in this post-fact society. …

I will say this about the Sotomayor quote. … The day after the story came out, when Newt Gingrich accused her of being a racist, we read the speech. We read the speech — we do have time to do good journalism. We read the speech, and we actually wrote a story that said that’s out of context. Here is what she said. Here is what she meant. Here’s what she said before, here’s what she said after. And that’s really what journalism’s about. Journalism is about the business of verification. And we as a society can’t afford to lose that.

During the questions I offered one final push (and this is where I’ll leave things here):

One big issue that we’re talking about here is this idea of impartiality or disinterestedness, versus partisanship. … I think that, as a goal, disinterestedness is completely wrong. If you’re disinterested, that just means that you’re lazy and you don’t care about the story. What you ought to be is passionately interested in obtaining the truth.

So it’s not about being disinterested versus being partisan. It’s about, are you looking for the truth, or not? And I totally agree with Greg Moore that we do need some larger media enterprises with these checks and balances, with good editors. Because there are a lot of bloggers who just don’t have the discipline to write good stuff. …

That doesn’t mean that a large organization is overcoming this partisanship. I’ve seen some what I consider overtly partisan “news” stories in the pages of the Denver Post. … You’re not going to escape the problem by having big media versus little media. The difference is, is the individual reporter going to go after the facts.

So I’m overtly partisan. I mean, that’s why I do journalism, because I’m a political activist. I’m an advocacy journalist. I’m oriented toward free markets and individual rights. That’s my thing. So, for instance, I did a lot of original research into corporate welfare in Colorado. …

Instead of having a distinction of disinterestedness versus partisanship, I would like to make another distinction, which is the straight, easy, fact-based news… versus more of the analysis, the integration of the facts. Now, with that integration of the facts, that’s a lot harder, and that’s where we get into a lot more disagreement. So that’s why I love reading Colorado Independent, Westword (some writers at Westword tend to have sort of a left-wing bent), but I love reading these publications because they look up good facts, and that’s useful to me. I mean, a fact’s a fact, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat, right winger, left winger.

I’d like to briefly address the Sotomayor issue, just because that illustrates what we’re talking about. So, if you tend to lean toward the left, and you’re reading a publication that tends to lean toward the left, and it says that a quote by Sotomayor is out of context, it’s like, “Yes, we’re all right, and everybody who’s beating up Sotomayor is wrong.” But, you know what, I read that speech too… I’ve done a detailed analysis of that speech on my web page. … And the fact is that she is basically a judicial subjectivist. That’s what she is, and she repeats the point over and over again, in many different ways. So the broader point is not out of context. …

So one of the complaints is we filter the facts according to our perception. But a lot of people saying this, and beating up the other side, are doing the exact same thing, right? So it’s a mirror that we need to hold up to ourselves too. … Whether we’re partisans overtly or unnamed partisans, I think that that’s very very important.

Introducing Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand

Jennifer Burns, a history professor with the University of Virginia, has a new book out called Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. I don’t have time to review the entire book at this time, so for now I’ll merely make a few notes about Burns’s introduction.

The first thing to note about Burns’s book is that it is a thoroughly researched, scholarly book. It was published by Oxford University Press, among the most respected academic publishers in the world. Burns includes an eight-page “Essay on Sources” (pp. 291-298). Her notes consume another 45 pages, and her bibliography takes another fifteen pages. Clearly she’s worked hard on it.

Unfortunately, Burns seems to have a superficial understanding of some of Rand’s main ideas. However exhaustive her historical research, Burns is not likely to shed as much light on Rand as she might with a better understanding of what Rand was about. I’ll address a few quotations from Burns’s introduction in the order they appear. Please note that my purpose here is to point out some of Burns’s missteps, so I don’t review the great lines from the introduction. And of course I readily acknowledge that Burns may fill in some of the needed context further in her book. Again, this is only a first and limited take.

“Ideas were the only thing that truly mattered, [Rand] believed, both in a person’s life and in the course of history,” Burns writes (p. 1).

Rand certainly believed that one’s explicit and implicit ideas basically set the course of one’s life, and that similarly the dominant ideas of a culture basically set the course of a society. Yet Burns overstates the point. One’s friends, one’s romantic love, one’s career — these are not ideas, they are values. And they are of central importance to a person’s life. Ultimately, for Rand, the entire point of developing sound ideas is to help us achieve the values we need to live successfully. Burns’s comment on the point is not wildly misleading, but neither is it a careful summary of Rand’s beliefs.

On the second page, Burns writes:

Along with her most avid fans, she saw herself as a genius who transcended time. Like her creation Howard Roark, Rand believed, “I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” … The only philosopher she acknowledged as an influence was Aristotle. Beyond his works, Rand insisted that she was unaffected by external influences or ideas. According to Rand and her latter-day followers, Objectivism sprang, Athena-like, fully formed from the brow of its creator.

While again Burns’s comments reveal grains of truth, on the whole they mislead. Rand correctly thought that she made important and original contributions to philosophy. But the notion that she thought she “transcended time” in the sense intended is silliness. She thought no such thing. All Burns is doing here is parroting unfounded smears she’s heard others make.

Now, there is a sense in which Rand saw any authentic, consistent creator as timeless. Steven Mallory says of The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark:

I often think that he’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die some day. But he’s living it. I think he’s what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you met last. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, they deny, they contradict – and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard -– one can imagine him existing forever. (page 452 of the small paperback)

However, we should also remember here that Roark purposefully entered the tutelage of architect Henry Cameron, and Rand herself found inspiration for the novel in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rand makes a similar comment regarding her own literary timelessness in her introduction to The Fountainhead. She quotes Victor Hugo: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” She writes that Romantic art “deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence.” Rand then paraphrases Aristotle that art properly concerns itself “not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.” Notice here that, in a single page, Rand acknowledges three of her influences, Aristotle, Hugo, and the Romantic school generally.

What of Roark’s comment that he inherited nothing? It is useful here to consider the context of that quote. Roark has just been kicked out of architecture school. The dean of the school is trying to talk (what he regards as) sense into Roark. The dean says (page 24), “Nothing has ever been invented by one man in architecture. The proper creative process is a slow, gradual, anonymous, collective one, in which each man collaborates with all the others and subordinates himself to the standards of the majority.”

To this, Roark replies, “But the best is a matter of standards — and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of a new one.”

Here Roark is saying that, rather than subordinate one’s judgment to the standards of the majority, one should develop and stand on one’s own judgment. He is further saying that, in architecture, he does not wish to follow in any established architectural tradition, but rather create buildings of his own, unique and fitted to their site. Notably, by this time, Roark has already found inspiration in the work of Cameron, who holds similar views on the importance of independent judgment.

If we wish to adapt Roark’s insight to the realm of philosophy, we can say that one should not just blindly follow in some philosophical tradition just for the sake of belonging to that school. But, if by one’s own judgment, one finds value in the insight of some school, then obviously one should integrate that insight into one’s body of knowledge. Roark happily learned from the engineering tradition and adapted that knowledge to his own work.

The mere fact that Roark says he might “stand at the beginning of a new” tradition shows that Roark has nothing against tradition per se. In philosophy I can learn from Rand and other philosophers in the same way that in architecture Roark learned from Cameron and his engineering professors.

What about Burns’s claim that the “only philosopher she acknowledged as an influence was Aristotle?” This has better grounding: in her “About the Author” note for Atlas Shrugged, Rand writes, “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle.” Rand particularly praises Aristotle’s “definition of the laws of logic and of the means of human knowledge.” However, it is important to understand just how profoundly important Rand thought Aristotle was. Rand also appreciated and learned from thinkers like Aquinas, Locke, and Thomas Jefferson — whom she counted as essentially in the Aristotelean line. So, by acknowledging a debt to Aristotle, Rand is not cutting herself off from all subsequent thinkers; she is acknowledging Aristotle’s influence on those thinkers.

Notably, Burns here overlooks Rand’s further acknowledgment in the next paragraph to her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Beyond the realm of philosophy, Rand acknowledged the American movies of her childhood, the economist Ludwig von Mises, the authors Hugo and Dostoevsky, and many others. In her introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand blasts Nietzsche’s ideas but finds value in him “as a poet” who “projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man’s greatness.”

Is Burns correct that Rand thought of herself as a genius? She denied it when her student and heir Leonard Peikoff called her a genius. Peikoff recounts her words on page 350 of The Voice of Reason: “My distinctive attribute is not genius, but intellectual honesty.” In answer to Peikoff’s persistence, Rand added, “One can’t look at oneself that way. No one can say: ‘Ah me! the genius of the ages.’ My perspective as a creator has to be not ‘How great I am’ but ‘How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'”

Granting Rand’s penchant for dramatic statements, Burns’s talk about Rand thinking she was a genius who “transcended time” is, in the sense intended, untrue.

Next consider a strange paragraph from Burns on page 3:

[Rand’s] indictment of altruism, social welfare, and service to others sprang from her belief that these ideals underlay Communism [etc.] … Rand’s solution, characteristically, was extreme: to eliminate all virtues that could possibly be used in the service of totalitarianism. It was also simplistic. If Rand’s great strength as a thinker was to grasp interrelated underlying principles and weave them into an impenetrable logical edifice, it was also her greatest weakness. In her effort to find a unifying cause for all the trauma and bloodshed of the twentieth century, Rand was attempting the impossible.

But what is simplistic here is Burns’s reading of Rand. First simply notice Burns’s bias: she presumes at the outset that Rand’s entire approach is basically wrong (“extreme,” “simplistic,” “impossible”). But Burns doesn’t really illuminate Rand’s basic approach. To begin with, we must know what Rand meant by “altruism” — and what she thought about mutually beneficial human relationships — to get any idea of where Rand was headed.

The deeper point is that altruism is an ethical doctrine (growing from certain metaphysical premises), and as such it is much broader than any political system. For instance, the altruism that Roark fights in The Fountainhead lies outside of the political system. Similarly, the altruism enacted at the manufacturing plant in Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged arises outside of any political program. While certainly Rand saw altruism as a central driving force of any collectivist political system, she attacked altruism (which she saw as inherently self-sacrificial) broadly, not merely as it pertained to politics.

Certainly Rand was influenced by her childhood experiences in Russia. But Rand’s moral theories are not merely a product of her personal experiences or the historical era in which she lived, as Burns seems to suggest. Rand’s unique moral theory of ethical egoism must be evaluated on its own terms as philosophy, not blithely dismissed as some rationalistic coping mechanism for childhood trauma.

Next, on the same page, Burns writes, “… Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action. In her work, the state is always a destroyer, acting to frustrate and inhibit the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals.”

Burns’s statement here is simply false. Rand advanced a deeply positive portrait of government action that protects individual rights. She loudly praised the Founding Fathers of the United States. She vociferously denounced the anarchism of Murray Rothbard. She wrote an essay titled “The Nature of Government” in which she passionately defended the need of a rights-protecting government.

True, of her three main novels, two are set in periods in which the government has become corrupt and thus antagonistic to the requirements of human life. Yet Atlas Shrugged also features Judge Naragansett, who justly oversees the courtroom and studies constitutional law. In the Fountainhead, Roark’s enemy is not a government bureaucrat but rather villains out to destroy his reputation and career. In the end Roark is vindicated by the government-run court.

On page 5, Burns writes, “Although [Rand] preached unfettered individualism, the story I tell is one of Rand in relationship…” This statement misrepresents Rand’s theory of individualism, which has nothing to do with being a loner or avoiding relationships. Indeed, Rand’s works are filled with deep friendships, passionate romances, and respectful business alliances. By individualism Rand means that the individual is the fundamental basis of moral value, not to be sacrificed to the collective. This sort of individualism incorporates healthy relationships with others.

Burns also writes, “For all her fealty to reason, Rand was a woman subject to powerful, even overwhelming emotions.” But “fealty to reason,” despite the common stereotypes of Star Trek, does not imply that one is cut off from emotion or experiences muted emotions. Indeed, Rand believed that only a devotion to reason as the means of cognition can give rise to a life of passion and joy. I think Burns’s point here is that Rand could sometimes let her emotions get the best of her. Having watched some of her interviews, I agree that Rand could have a fiery temper. (While I share that tendency, I’m trying to overcome it.) But that’s a different issue than whether “fealty to reason” conflicts with “powerful emotions.”

Burns writes onto page 6 about Rand’s system: “… Objectivism as a philosophy left no room for elaboration, extension, or interpetation…” Yet Burns’s own bibliography disproves her statement here.

Burns correctly suggests that the social group surrounding Rand, led by the vicious and deceitful Nathaniel Branden, grew strange, unfriendly, and stultifying. I suppose that Rand would acknowledge as her greatest mistake getting tanged up with that catastrophe. The tendency Burns describes was deeply unfortunate. But it did not define Rand’s broader social relations or her ideas. Thus, Burns is unfair to claim that Rand’s “system” was “oppressive to individual variety.” (And Rand did not advocate variety as such, but variety in the context of an individual’s rational goals.)

Burns reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of Rand in the closing sentence of her introduction, which posits a “clash between [Rand’s] romantic and rational sides.” If Burns had any serious understanding of Rand’s ideas, she would understand that no such clash is possible. Rand made some mistakes, but Burns doesn’t capture their nature here.

If the introduction to her book is any indicator, Burns may have captured many important details about Rand’s life, but she doesn’t capture Rand the woman or the thinker.