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Reblogged:The John Birch Society, 2.0

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Or: Ayn Rand Explained Trump and QAnon in the 70's, Too

Shortly before I mostly dropped off the web for a few weeks, Snedcat left a comment linking to a fascinating piece by Reed Berkowitz titled, "A Game Designer's Analysis of QAnon." I must confess that I was largely ignorant of QAnon and various related conspiracy theories: I was vaguely aware that lots of Trump's strongest supporters were conspiracy nuts and not terribly surprised that he apparently sometimes pandered to them.

I don't have a lot of commentary of my own to offer on the subject right now, but I did remember the piece yesterday and became curious as to what Ayn Rand might have had to say about the kind of people who indulge in conspiracy theories and why.

I am never disappointed when I do this, but I was slightly surprised to see, in her commentary on the Watergate conspiracy ("Brothers, You Asked for It!", published within The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. II, nos. 14 and 15 in April 1973) a very good explanation both of why so many people who are alarmed by the state of the country are drawn to conspiracy theories and why someone might pander to such people (as Trump has) or even cultivate them (as someone is apparently doing via several internet fora).

For anyone not already familiar with the philosophical meaning of pragmatism, here's a link to Ayn Rand's commentary on the philosophy of Pragmatism, and another to her talk (with transcription) "Philosophy: Who Needs It." These will be helpful to make sense of the following passage (tldr in P.S.):
If you dig enough, you'll find ... something. (Image by Sigmund, via Unsplash, license.)
[T]he big dilemma for all the pragmatists of the Right, is: what are they to fight and by what means, if principles are inoperative? Politics is a field in which one deals with ideas and it requires the ability to argue, to discuss, to persuade. What does one do in politics if one has discarded the whole realm of ideas? One fights men.

The concrete-bound pragmatist mentality cannot fight for an abstract goal. It cannot fight for anything in the realm of ideas, only against something. To fight for, means to struggle to bring something into existence, which requires the power of abstraction; to fight against, means to oppose something which is there already. But even to fight against an existing idea requires the promulgation of ideas. What can one find as a substitute, which is there already and which -- one has been taught -- is unaffected by ideas? Men.

For many years past, the ideological policy and argumentation of most of the political Right has been one solid ad hominem. Republican candidates me-too'd the Democrats, adding only the claim that they, the Republicans, would do the job better, because they were better, kindlier, more experienced, or more folksy men (thus losing election after election). The crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy was not fighting communism, but communists; it consisted merely in a campaign of party-card hunting. General Motors did not fight Ralph Nader on the issues, but hired investigators to spy on him, hoping to find material for a personal exposé (and failed). The John Birch Society ascribes all the disasters of the modern world to a conspiracy of evil men. [bold added, citation above]
There have always been conspiracy nuts and politicians happy to use them. Rand helps us understand why there are so many, and what kind of politician would find them useful. Her piece deserves a full reading for this reason alone.

Berkowitz's piece is interesting because it shows how someone is using technology to gather and corral such people, as well as to flatter them -- by giving them community -- and the illusion of something else that is difficult to come by without rational principles, namely a sense of intellectual efficacy:
There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you "figure it out yourself" you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to "connect the dots yourself" you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at...
There is much more, and I think that piece is worth reading as well -- particularly by principled people who are alarmed at the state of the nation today.

Off the cuff, I am not so sure this is much different in kind than what the John Birch Society did for its members in its heyday. But what bothers me is that it is more centralized and scales better, and the number of potential recruits is much higher, proportionally and in absolute numbers than it was in the past, for the cultural reasons Rand discussed in 1973.

-- CAV

P.S. Ayn Rand is not claiming that there are millions of professed (or even self-aware) Pragmatists out there. She does argue that that philosophy and others have, through our cultural institutions, had a very strong effect on our culture and way of thinking; Pragmatism for several decades now. To wit, from the talk:
You might claim -- as most people do -- that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? "Don't be so sure -- nobody can be certain of anything." You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: "This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." You got that from Plato. Or: "That was a rotten thing to do, but it's only human, nobody is perfect in this world." You got that from Augustine. Or: "It may be true for you, but it's not true for me." You got it from William James. Or: "I couldn't help it! Nobody can help anything he does." You got it from Hegel. Or: "I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's evil, because it's selfish." You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: "Act first, think afterward"? They got it from John Dewey.
The influence of philosophy is not confined to slogans or explicit beliefs, either, as Rand argues in that talk and her student, Leonard Peikoff, discusses in detail in The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out.

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"The same two points constitute the pragmatist approach to politics, which, developed most influentially by Dewey, became the philosophy of the Progressive movement in this country (and of most of its liberal descendants down to the present day)".

Leonard Peikoff, “Pragmatism Versus America,”

And sure as we know Pragmatism remains the prevailing American philosophy. For the Right and the Left. The Pragmatic Progressivist (Obama) the Pragmatic, make-a-deal, whatever-works businessman, Trump, and the Pragmatic Left-Socialists, Biden/Harris.

When one can't have the luxury of instantly getting rid of that false philosophy, one takes the better option in a given political context and period. That leaves (left) Trump.

The pragmatic-Socialist-Leftists will do the greater damage, of that I'm certain.

A really good post Mr Van Horn.

Edited by whYNOT
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