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Reblogged:How Ideas Propagate

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Years ago, possibly through Alex Epstein's How to Talk to Anyone About Energy course or Don Watkins's Persuasion Mastery course, I recall one of the later steps of the process of persuasion being to point the other person to a book which will present whatever argument or viewpoint you are promoting in a comprehensive way.

This makes perfect sense and mirrors my own experience. Way back in grad school, a big-L Libertarian contacted me after reading a few of my student newspaper columns, saying among other things that he thought I'd "make a good Libertarian."

I disagreed, and began arguing that the Libertarian movement would actually harm the cause of liberty. We emailed back and forth for quite some time.

(This was a surprise, as I'd expected a short correspondence, ended by him insulting me for bringing Ayn Rand into the conversation: That's basically what had always happened in my semi-captive audiences with my Libertarian ex-father-in-law...)

I finally reached the conclusion that (a) this guy was actually interested in what I was saying, although he did not always agree with it, and (b) he needed (and was ready) to see a better case than I was making because his questions and objections were intelligent. So I lent him my well-worn copy of Peter Schwartz's booklet, Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.

A week or so passed, and I, probably a decade older than the Libertarian, began to think something like, This kid's ghosting me. Time to ask for my booklet back.

Within about another day, and before I'd done anything else, I heard back from him. He'd changed his mind! "Chalk one up for pamphleteering," his email began.

Some time later, at his suggestion I would join him in starting a campus Objectivist club, which did very well.

That is, in microcosm, how the kind of ideas we need to spread, to improve our culture happens: One mind at a time, and, crucially, with each new fellow traveler deciding on his own to join the cause in whatever capacity makes sense to him.

I've been re-reading Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It lately, and this episode came to my mind as I read the essay "An Untitled Letter," where she commented on John Rawls's A Theory of Justice.

Within is her brief description of the funhouse mirror image of how good ideas spread: how bad works gain currency. It is instructive to consider the differences between the two processes:
A Portrait of Evil (Image by Unknown Artist, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
If you wonder how so grotesquely irrational a philosophy as [Immanuel] Kant's came to dominate Western culture, you are now witnessing an attempt to repeat that process. Mr. Rawls is a disciple of Kant -- philosophically and psycho-epistemologically. Kant originated the technique required to sell irrational notions to the men of a skeptical, cynical age who have formally rejected mysticism without grasping the rudiments of rationality. The technique is as follows: if you want to propagate an outrageously evil idea (based on traditionally accepted doctrines), your conclusion must be brazenly clear, but your proof unintelligible. Your proof must be so tangled a mess that it will paralyze a reader's critical faculty -- a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere, irrelevant side issues, clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, and big chunks of the arbitrary thrown in as self-evident, erudite references to sciences, to pseudo-sciences, to the never-to-be-sciences, to the untraceable and the unprovable -- all of it resting on a zero: the absence of definitions. I offer in evidence the Critique of Pure Reason.


Like any overt school of mysticism, a movement seeking to achieve a vicious goal has to invoke the higher mysteries of an incomprehensible authority. An unread and unreadable book serves this purpose. It does not count on men's intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions and fears. It is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation. It is not aimed at the reader's understanding, but at his inferiority complex.


Within a few years of the book's publication, commentators will begin to fill libraries with works analyzing, "clarifying" and interpreting its mysteries. Their notions will spread all over the academic map, ranging from the appeasers, who will try to soften the book's meaning -- to the glamorizers, who will ascribe to it nothing worse than their own pet inanities -- to the compromisers, who will try to reconcile its theory with its exact opposite -- to the avant-garde, who will spell out and demand the acceptance of its logical consequences. The contradictory, antithetical nature of such interpretations will be ascribed to the book's profundity -- particularly by those who function on the motto: "If I don't understand it, it's deep." The students will believe that the professors know the proof of the book's theory, the professors will believe that the commentators know it, the commentators will believe that the author knows it -- and the author will be alone to know that no proof exists and that none was offered.
When one considers the need to change the overall direction of a culture, this sounds intimidating. But omitted from the above are important elements of context, supplied in part by Rand's description of how more active-minded readers will react to such garbage (within that essay); as well as how intellectuals can influence a culture, and in this way, affect the course of history (elsewhere).

In short, merely looking at numbers is the wrong way to view cultural trends. The people who glom on to an impenetrable work they keep hearing is profound do not count in that regard. They can't or won't bother to grasp anything truly original.

They're the ones who skip editorials and run away from serious conversations of any kind. There are tons of them and, aside from perhaps being amenable to persuasion at a very superficial level, on a very specific issue, and for a very short time, they are not the best targets for meaningful, long-range attempts to persuade them of something that will challenge major philosophical premises most people in their society -- likely including themselves -- hold.

-- CAV

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