Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Symbolater Syndrome

or, Those Who Destroy a Great Value As They Perform Gestures That Symbolize Preservation of That Very Same Value

Stuart K. Hayashi

Christian Bale in Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan,
prods. Larry J. Franco, et al., (Warner Bros., 2005).

Courtesy Pixabay.

Because some readers consider it daunting to read this entire essay on one page, I have divided it into four sections, each with its own blog post.  You may peruse those if you find that format more palatable:

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

I want to talk about symbols.

Courtesy Pixabay.

No, not cymbals! Symbols!

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol . . . as a symbol I can be incorruptible; I can be everlasting.
Batman Begins (emphasis Christian Bale's)

Is Bruce Wayne right? Is a symbol incorruptible?

How the Use of Symbols Makes Us Who We Are
As human beings, we need symbols — without them we could not think. Every concept is a symbol of various particulars; the concept dog is a symbol of many different individual dogs of different breeds. Every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb is a symbol representing some concept. When you see the three letters d-o-g, you know they represent the concept of “dog”; when you see the word, the image of dogs comes to your mind. Even the word symbol is symbolic in another context. The suffix -bol means “to throw,” and the prefix sym- means “the same.” “Symbol” means to throw more than one entity of the same type. That is, when I “throw” the word or concept for a particular entity at you, you know that both the entity and the symbol of that entity are the same in that they both represent the entity. When I show you a dog and then I say “That’s a dog” to you, you know that the dog represents itself and the word dog represents the dog; conceptually, both the literal entity and the symbol for that entity are the same in your mind. In that demonstration I threw together the entity and the symbol for it, rendering them the same in your mind.

As Ayn Rand explained in the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, our perceptual awareness can focus itself on only so many particulars at once. If I show you three lines, as in | | | , you know those are three lines immediately. But if I show you too many lines at once, such as ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||, you do not know immediately how many lines there are. Hence, we have Arabic numerals — symbols —to help us out. As you perform arithmetic — perhaps calculating the number of monetary units you spent and how many monetary units you have left over in your custody — the symbols “38” are easier for you to work with in your mind than is ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||.

 A plan of action — such as a recipe — symbolizes in our mind the sequence of actions we are to take to accomplish a specific goal. Absent of symbols, we could not plan for the future; it is through symbols that we communicate our most complex thoughts. A punch to your face can convey hostility to you on a visceral level, but a motion picture is a set of symbols that conveys so many more emotions to you in a vastly more complex fashion.

A ritual is a set of actions that conveys a symbolic meaning. We human beings need rituals to remind ourselves of what we consider important in our lives. In the United States, it is a ritual on February 14 for romantic partners to exchange tokens of affection, such as flowers and candy and cards. People find meaning in this ritual because it is their method of reminding themselves of how much they value this romantic love during the other 364 days of the year.

At their best, symbols are cognitive tools that we use to help us expand upon our understanding of what is true in the literal, concrete context. (Note the very metaphor — that is, symbolism — in my referring to symbols as “tools.”) As I explained in the second issue of Hannah Eason’s Scout and Engineer magazine, when a work of fiction resonates with people, it is because on some visceral level they judge it to be a symbolic depiction of truths about human psychology that are applicable to real life — that is, our favorite works of fiction are symbols that remind us of what we consider important in reality.

Lex Luthor clone to Clark Kent/Superman [here]:
“The truth is, by the time you had dragged me to shore, something new had crept into your heart — pride, the most damning of the seven deadly sins. Now you wear that pride on your chest — right here in that self-righteous symbol.”

Symbols are so ubiquitous that we take them for granted; we are so accustomed to them that it would be cumbersome if, every time we encountered a symbol, we stopped to think to ourselves, “That’s a symbol.” In any instance wherein Y represents X in your mind, and X and Y are not literally the same, Y is a symbol for X. (I just used symbols to explain that.) A photograph is a symbol. A stop sign is a symbol. An obscene hand gesture is a symbol.

We use symbolism to explain to ourselves Aristotle’s Law of Identity and, upon having it written out symbolically, it becomes easier for us to apply it deductively to various situations. Take the expression of this Law, “If A = B, and B = C, then A = C.” Then take the syllogism, “If only birds have feathers, and if penguins have feathers, then penguins are birds.” Here, A represents birds, B represents the exclusive attribute of possessing feathers, and C represents penguins. “If A = B, and B = C, then A = C” is the symbolic representation of the fact that if the first and second item are the same in the pertinent context, and the second item and third item are also the same in the pertinent context, then the first and third item are the same in the pertinent context as well. As observed in psychologists’ Relational Frame Theory (RFT), this deductive application of Aristotle’s Law of Identity is something that babies that are 22 to 27 months old are able to apply on their own without any adult caregiver having consciously taught them to do so.

Even a principle or rule of conduct is a symbol. If society had no rules, no one would ever know how to behave around anyone else; we would all be in a state of perpetual culture shock. Rules of social conduct — such as etiquette — emerged through repeat interactions among people so that the next time those same people met for a specific purpose, they would have a better idea of what to expect from one another. A general rule of behavior is a symbol in that it represents, in your mind, the same sort of behavior you must repeat every time a particular social context repeats. I’m in the New York subway and I hear someone sneeze. I say “God bless you,” even though I am an atheist; the sentence is a gesture representing my goodwill toward people who are ill, or who feel awkward and undignified on account of the sneeze. Then I go back home to Hawaii and I hear an aunt sneeze. Again I say “God bless you”; the same goodwill is implied. Then I got to work and hear my secretary sneeze. I say “God bless you.” There are all of these different particular situations but they have a commonality — observance that someone sneezed, and the rule “Say ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezes” is itself a symbol that I use to remember what course of action to take in each instance where someone around me sneezes.

As of this writing, I am composing my own work of fiction that plays up symbolism heavily — some of it might be too on-the-nose (the very expression on the nose is highly symbolic, of course). If you want a hint on what the fiction is about, here is one of my favorite symbols:

A symbolic change to a symbol that symbolizes
another symbol. (This modifies a
fish symbol that symbolizes Jesus, and
Jesus is already a symbol.)
Courtesy Pixabay.

When you notice how strongly we human beings depend upon symbols to think, it becomes less surprising how emotionally invested people are in their favorite symbols. You may have heard of how, back in the 1980s, a very puerile “artist” created a work he called Piss Christ; this involved his dunking a crucifix in a bucket of urine. In 2013, Florida Atlantic University professor Deandre Poole commanded his students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. Very understandably, many Christians were offended by these gestures. I am an atheist — even a Christopher Hitchens-style militant anti-theist — and I am offended by these gestures; they are gratuitously cruel. One might ask the offended, “What do you care? It’s not as if someone actually socked you in the nose; all that happened was that the symbol that is Jesus was shown disrespect.” Yes, that is true, but billions of people have pledged themselves and their families to the ideas behind that symbol.

When Professor Poole ordered his Christian students to stomp on a sheet saying “Jesus,” that was itself a symbolic act — he was ordering his Christian students to commit a symbolic act of disrespect toward so much of what they and their families hold dear and believe to be right. The same applies to Piss Christ — it was the artist’s symbolic gesture indicating his presumption that so much of what Christians value deserves to get pissed on. The reason why, as a committed critic of religion, I find zero value in Piss Christ and in Professor Poole’s orders is that they were not offering any real criticism of the myriad faults and fallacies in Christianity; theirs was just a symbolic gesture designed to convey hostility as such.

Symbolism is also at the center of the blowup over newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. A very obvious reply to Muslims is, “That was just a cartoon; it wasn’t smacking you around; what do you care?” To most Muslims, the act was a symbolic show of disrespect toward a set of ideas to which devout Muslims have dedicated their entire lives. I don’t think you appreciate someone else implying that everything you love and cherish ought to be so casually dismissed. Of course, it’s embarrassing that this even needs to be said: no cartoon, however offensive or vile, justifies a violent response in the form of riots. But the point here is that there is actually nothing unusual about anyone getting highly emotional over a symbol — as we will see shortly, that is a common occurrence in the more secular First World, among the religious and atheists alike.

Due to the intense emotional reactions that symbols arouse, it also should not surprise that the most effective forms of propaganda are the ones that make the most effective use of symbolism. The most notorious political advertisement in U.S. history is a television commercial from 1965, run on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson. The commercial depicts a little American girl pulling the pedals off a flower and counting the number of pedals she pulled. Then, off-screen, there is a voiceover of a man doing his own countdown from ten to zero. It turns out that the man's countdown is the countdown for the launch of a nuclear missile. Though it commences off-screen, the girl and everyone else presumably perishes. This heavy-handed symbolism was to imply that if Americans voted into office LBJ’s Republican rival, Barry Goldwater, nuclear apocalypse would be the result.

Indeed, people not only employ symbolism to emphasize what they like and wish to promote, but also what they wish to oppose. Many people who are paranoid about corporate control over the food system launch all sorts of fanciful and false accusations against Monsanto Corporation. Do those people have any sort of personal grievance against Monsanto? The truth is that they do not; they don’t know any Monsanto employees and can point to no instance of having been harmed directly by Monsanto. Rather, they are using Monsanto as a symbol; by denouncing Monsanto, they believe they are striking a blow against a phenomenon that is actually much larger than Monsanto (and a phenomenon that, in many respects, is actually beyond the control of Monsanto’s top executives). (See my refutation to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's smears about Monsanto and GMOs here).

Symbolism is also the basis of politically motivated “debunking biographies.” Some historic figures are taken as symbols of particular ideas. To many Americans, Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand symbolize the principles of free-market capitalism. For that reason, some anti-capitalists have penned biographies to besmirch Jefferson and Reagan and Rand. The implication is that if Jefferson and Reagan and Rand — the symbolic representations of free-market capitalism — are discredited, then the practice and implementation of free-market capitalism shall likewise diminish in reputation. To many on the political Right, Barack Obama symbolizes political leftism. To them, if Obama’s reputation is tarnished, then the reputation of political leftism should be tarnished with it.

That also happened in the case of Matthew Josephson. During the 1930s Josephson — then a member of the Communist Party of the USA — resented the Du Ponts and other businessmen who opposed the New Deal. Considering such historical industrialists as John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and John Pierpont Morgan, Sr., to be symbols of laissez-faire capitalism, Josephson wrote a scurrilous book smearing them as robber barons (Josephson says that these men were already being called this name by the populists of the Granger movement in the late nineteenth century; he neglects to mention that the association of industrialists with “robber baron” was esoteric to everyone outside of the granger movement, and that it was Josephson himself who brought the robber baron epithet into the mainstream). Josephson figured correctly that if he ruined the reputations of particular famous industrialists, he could contribute to the negative image of for-profit enterprise as such. As was hoped, the Du Ponts and other industrialists who criticized the New Deal were dismissed by the public as the moral equivalent of the previous century’s “robber barons,” and the New Deal went on facing less opposition thereafter. (For a rebuttal to Josephson’s falsehoods, read Maury Klein.)

Yes, Bruce Wayne, a Symbol Is Corruptible
And one symbol can spawn another. For instance, a male lion has come to symbolize royalty because it reminds people of a symbol of another symbol. The male lion’s mane, with so many strands sticking out, reminds people of the spikes on a crown; crowns and coronets are themselves symbols. The spikes on a crown represent the rays of the sun, and it was ordinary for early civilizations to worship the sun. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun. So did the Mesoamericans, and the spikes sticking out of their priests’ headdresses, too, represent the sun’s rays. The Japanese have also, and that is why the sun is on the Japanese flag. The halo around the head of Jesus and angels in paintings represents the sun as well. The sun was considered divine — godly — and, to emphasize to his subjects his own godliness, many a European king would wear a coronet that reminded everyone of the sun, that symbol of power and divinity. Hence, the lion’s male symbolizes royalty because it reminds people of a king’s crown, and the king’s crown was a symbol of the sun, and the sun was used as a symbol of power, both social and physical power.

Yet one sun symbol also demonstrates that, in some contexts at least, Bruce Wayne was wrong. A symbol can be corrupted. The people of ancient India created their own distinctive emblem to represent the sun, and this was also associated with mystical energy. This sun symbol was then culturally appropriated by a European mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, for her new neo-pagan religious movement Theosophy (theo- as in “god” and -sophy as in “wisdom”; it was about “God’s wisdom”) . Theosophy became popular among Germans obsessed with race and ethnicity and of their own ethnic group’s history in a particular region — this was the pan-German Volkish movement, the alt-right “White Identitarian” movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As many members of the Volkish movement were mystical and wanted to revive the iconography of the religions that dominated Europe and Asia Minor before Christianity, the Volkists were greatly interested in Theosophy. They added their own racist components to Theosophy and called this new hybrid philosophy by the name of Ariosophy — wisdom about the Aryan race. The Ariosophists appropriated the symbol that Madame Blavatsky had appropriated from India. Adolf Hitler helped turn Volkism into a political movement and, due to Volkism’s ties to Ariosophy, Hitler adopted that same sun symbol that the Ariosophists got from Theosophy. That was the swastika.

Nowadays, when most people in the West see the swastika, India does not come to mind at all; nor do people think of the sun. They are instead reminded of racism, prejudice, and mass murder. What was once a symbol of the sun became a symbol of supernatural power and then it became a symbol of hate. Contrary to Bruce Wayne, the meaning of a particular symbol is not “everlasting”; one group of people can steal someone else’s symbol and then add new cultural meaning to it, a meaning quite different from, or even contrary to, the original meaning. Unfortunately for Master Wayne, a symbol is not incorruptible — as the creator of the “Pepe the Frog” character learned all too tragically.

Some of the great evils taking place in the world today relate to a specific manner in which symbols have been corrupted. This form of corruption is what I call symbolatry (simm-BAWL-uh-chree) — the worship of symbols. Specifically, it is the worship of a symbol to such an extent that the symbol takes precedence over the concretes that the symbol was originally crafted to represent. At its worst, symbolatry involves the denigration and sacrifice of a value in the course of upholding or advancing some symbol of appreciation for that same value.

The Worthiness of a Symbol Depends Upon the Worthiness of the Real Entities and Phenomena That the Symbol Represents
In the philosophic branch of epistemology, there is a very nauseating school called anti-realism. Anti-realist philosophers posit the “theoretic possibility [sic]” that everything you experience — your great accomplishments, making love, giving birth to your children, raising your children — is just a dream or delusion. Maybe none of that is real, they say, and you are completely ignorant of the real world, assuming there is one. (As you can imagine, ever since the year 1999, most people who posit this arbitrary scenario cite The Matrix, itself a symbolic representation of other symbolic representations.) What I just described is the extreme version of anti-realism; the “moderated” versions are not much better.

One moderated version of anti-realism is called “representationalism.” Representationalism acknowledges that there is an objective reality external to your own consciousness. However, the representationalist is similar to the more extreme anti-realist in positing arbitrarily the “possibility” that your perceptions of reality are highly distorted. I paraphrase the argument as such.

There is a reality, but you experience it through the media of your sense organs. That is, inputs that inform you about reality pass through your sense organs, such as your skin and your eyes. Maybe something is lost in translation, such as in a game of “telephone” [note that this is yet another symbol]. In a game of telephone, you have one person at the far left and one person at the far right, and 98 people in between them. The person on the far left whispers a sentence in the ear of the person directly to his right. Then that person is to pass on the message verbatim. This second person is to whisper that exact same sentence into the ear of the person directly to her own right. This is to continue from person to person. By the time the sentence reaches the person on the far right, the message is garbled. Perhaps something similar happens when we interpret data. Maybe, for instance, the sky is not blue; perhaps the sky is really orange and we are all color-blind.  
Therefore, we must make room for the possibility that we do not experience reality directly, and the sensory inputs can never be more than crude symbolic representations of that reality. If reality is a beautiful artwork such as Leonardo’s Vetruvian Man, then our sensory experiences are not even a copy of that but a crude stick-figure version of it. (Note that because every realistic painting or drawing is a symbolic representation, a crude stick-figure version of Vetruvian Man would be a symbolic representation of a symbolic representation.) That it can be imagined is basis enough to conclude that it is theoretically possible that life and the universe, as you know them, are nothing more than simulations.

The representationalist position is ridiculous, and it is unfortunate that even philosophers who are often called empiricists, such as John Locke and Herbert Spencer, fall for that argument. Sensory data are the most basic basis for everything we know. To the extent that I gained a false interpretation through a superficial use of my senses — I thought I saw a puddle of water and it turned out to be a mirage — I learn of my error by the further use of the sensory organs (scientists used their senses to discover why there are any mirages).

No arbitrary postulate justly falls into the category of “theoretic possibility.” Any arbitrary postulate can be asserted, such as “Maybe it’s a theoretic possibility that an ice cube will fall to the bottom of a glass of water and remain there for eternity.” No, what makes a proposition a theoretic possibility is that there is evidence to support it.

It is nonsensical to say “There are only probabilities or possibilities and no certainties.” The validity of the concepts “probable” and “possible” presuppose the validity of the concept “certain.” The concept of “fraction” is derivative of “a single unit,” as a fraction is but a section of a single unit. Someone who does not know what a “single unit” is will not know what a “fraction” is, either. A percentage is a type of fraction; any percentage less than 100 is a fraction. The concept of a “50-percent likelihood” that an event will repeat itself presupposes the “100-percent likelihood” (that is, absolute fact) that it happened the first time. If no event can be 100 percent, then, correspondingly, you cannot deem the likelihood of any future event to be 50 percent either.

To say that a proposition is possible means that if the proposition is not necessarily certain, (1) there still exists evidence suggesting its certainty and (2) human beings have the means for ascertaining in the future whether the proposition is certain or not.

If on Sunday you say “It is possible that tomorrow I will bump into my colleague Steve and have a long chat with him,” that presupposes that by Tuesday you will know for certain whether you did or did not bump into Steve on Monday and have a long chat with him. It means that by Tuesday you would know 100 percent whether or not that happened. “Certainty” is the standard whereby any proposition can be judged to be a “possibility” or not. If it is not valid to pronounce any claim to be “100-percent known and certain,” then to pronounce anything a “99-percent possibility” is meaningless. Likewise, if no proposition can be deemed “certain,” then there are no criteria whereby one can justify deeming a proposition to be “possible” either. The validity of the concept “possibility” depends upon the validity of the concept “certain.”

It is ultimately through sensory experience that we ascertain what is possible or not. To say that maybe sensory experience is invalid is to say that the most basic means by which we determine any proposition to be valid or invalid might itself be invalid. The very people who say “Sensory experience might be an invalid method for determining what propositions are valid or invalid” are advancing a proposition that, by their own implicit admission, they cannot justify as valid. Hence, that very proposition is arbitrary and not deserving of further contemplation — and yet, for over a century, too many people in academia have staked entire careers on it.

Now we come to the weakness of representationalism in particular. The representationalist claims that we do not have knowledge of what is literally real; we only possess knowledge of our mind’s symbolic representation of what is real. That is, we do not know what reality is like literally; we only understand our own symbolic representation of what reality is like. The internal contradiction there is that it overlooks that you only know that Y is a symbolic representation of X to the extent that you know what are X’s attributes in the literal, concrete context. If you possess no knowledge of what X is literally — if you do not know what are X’s attributes in the literal context — then you have no basis in so much as suspecting that Y might be a symbolic representation of X.

For example, suppose I am two years old. I have never heard of elephants. I have never heard the word “elephant.” I have never seen an elephant up close in some zoo; I have never seen a photo of one; I have not seen any TV programs depicting elephants. I do not even know the distinction between “animal” and “plant,” or “animal” versus “nonliving object”; no adult caregiver helped explain that distinction to me. Nor has anyone told me what a statue or figurine is.

You have a figurine of an elephant. You show it to me and say “This is an elephant.” I will think “elephant” means this particular figurine. I will not know that the figurine is merely a representation of an elephant. In order for me to have comprehended that the figurine is a symbolic representation of an elephant, I first would have needed knowledge of what an elephant literally is.

Just as the validity of the concept “possibility” depends upon the validity of the concept “certain knowledge,” so too does the validity of the concept “symbolic representation” depend upon the validity of the concept “knowledge of what is literally real.” To know that Y is a simulation of reality or a symbolic representation of reality, you have to know what is actual reality. That is the internal contradiction of anyone who asserts that we do not know actual reality but only know a simulation or symbolic representation of it. Our knowledge of what constitutes reality’s attributes in the literal context is the standard whereby we judge anything to be a simulation or symbolic representation of that reality. If we do not know what reality’s attributes are in the literal context, then we lack any criterion for ascertaining anything to be a simulation or symbolic representation of that reality. Hence, the assertion “Maybe our sensory experiences are not actual reality but only a simulation or symbolic representation of that reality” also amounts to an arbitrary assertion unworthy of further speculation.

The point of this section is that in metaphysics and epistemology, literal reality has primacy over simulation and symbolic representation. Knowledge about literal reality comes first, and from that we derive our simulations and symbolic representations of that reality. Our symbolic representations of that reality — the concepts and words we use to comprehend reality, and the works of art we compose to make even more sense of it psychologically — remain important. But in the philosophic branches of metaphysics and epistemology, those symbolic representations should not be treated as more important than having a highly literal understanding of what goes on in reality.

And what is the ultimate purpose in understanding reality on a highly literal level? Contrary to Plato, the final purpose of learning about reality is not learning and contemplation as ends in themselves. The final point of learning about reality is to thrive in that reality. Thus we arrive at ethics — the science of ascertaining the proper course of action in reality.

It is very fine that many of our actions amount to gestures and rituals that symbolize our loyalty to a particular value. The problem comes when a gesture or ritual symbolizing a person’s loyalty to a particular value ends up being prioritized above the actual value — when people sacrifice and destroy what they purport to be their value for the sake of their performance of a gesture or ritual that is intended to convey their loyalty to that very same value.

Let’s go back to the ritual of lovers exchanging gifts of Valentine’s Day. Imagine that one man wants to provide a very expensive and lavish gift to his girlfriend on February 14 — and that the fanciness and expensiveness of the gift is to be a surprise. He begin working extra hours — to the point that he neglects his girlfriend. He resents the added work and, in turn, comes to resent his girlfriend as well, frequently snapping at her and trying to make her feel guilty for his own misery, all the while not telling her his plans for February 14. Her very presence reminds him of how he’s making himself miserable for her ostensive benefit. By the time that February 14 comes around, he does give her the gift — but, at this point, he hates her guts. Was that man’s effort worth it? No, it was not. The ritual of exchanging gifts of Valentine’s Day symbolizes a particular value — your appreciation for your lover on the other 364 days of the year — and that value is exactly what that man undermined in his prioritization of the symbolic gesture.

There are plenty of other examples of this phenomenon — some of which have extremely dangerous and violent ramifications in Western society.

Consider Aristotle, one of the earliest philosophers in history to point out that facts, not human or divine authorities, are the final arbiter of truth. He came to many conclusions throughout his life, but stressed that more vital than most of his conclusions is the methodology whereby one is to reach conclusions properly. The methodology is of inductive reason — relying on observational data themselves as the most basic basis of all knowledge. Throughout much of early Christendom, theologians recognized that Aristotle’s approach conflicted with Christian emphasis on faith. For that reason, the Bishop of Paris issued the Condemnation of 1210 A.D., banning Aristotle’s works. That did not last, however, as the most curious theologians, such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, admitted to themselves that Aristotle was too valuable to stow away. Ultimately, it was Aquinas’s approach that won out over the course of the high Middle Ages, and church authorities relented to allowing some amount of study on Aristotle. Unfortunately, recognizing how much of Aristotle’s original works still conflicted with church doctrine, the scholastics bowdlerized him to the point where, later, even such learned scholars of the Renaissance as Francis Bacon and Pierre Gassendi ended up confusing the word of the church with the word of Aristotle. Bacon and Gassendi apparently believed that arguing in favor of inductive reason was some sort of rebellion against Aristotle. Among the empiricists it was only a minority — which includes figures such as Grotius — that recognized that the exercise of inductive reason was the approach that Aristotle recommended all along.

Now we come to the symbolatry. Aristotle concluded that the sun revolved around the Earth. Galileo came to the opposite conclusion — that the Earth revolves around the sun — and he knowingly did so through use of Aristotle’s own method, the method that Aristotle stressed was more important than most of Aristotle’s conclusions. In “Letter on Sunspots,” Galileo pointed out that Aristotle “would not have departed so far” from Galileo’s conclusion “if his knowledge had included our present sensory evidence, since he not only admitted manifest experience among the ways of forming conclusions about physical problems, but even gave it first place.”

Yet the church persecuted Galileo on the premise that Galileo had contradicted Aristotle’s position — which, at this point, had become the church’s official position. In effect, the church’s persecution of Galileo was a symbolic display of loyalty to Aristotle when it, in fact, involved punishing the true Aristotelian for adhering to Aristotle’s method. Here, loyalty to Aristotle in a symbolic context was venerated over someone being loyal to Aristotle in concrete practice.

I can cite a more recent case study. The American flag symbolizes freedom, which includes the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech. Some politicians argue that this symbol of freedom is so sacred, it should be illegal to burn a U.S. flag in your own possession. In other words, if you purchase an American flag with your own money and then, to make some political statement, you burn it in front of a gathering of people on your own land, these politicians will consider that so evil that the government should fine or imprison you. But however offensive it may be, what you do peaceably on your own private property with your own personal effects is free expression. Politicians who would outlaw the burning of the American flag are purporting to defend a symbol of the freedom of speech and, in so doing, they sacrifice the actual freedom of speech.

At first I was tempted to call this idolatry (ī-DAWL-uh-chree) — the suffix -latry meaning worship. Idolatry is the worship of idols, an idol being a material object or image that depicts something important, usually something godly. An American flag qualifies as an idol and icon, and acknowledging it as such does not demean its value. However, a more accurate term for the phenomenon I describe is symbolatry — worship of symbols in which the symbol of some value is worshiped as higher and godlier than the very same value the symbol purportedly depicts. I say symbol rather than idol because symbol is a broader category. Whereas an idol is a solid or visual symbolic representation, a symbol can be any sort of abstract representation; an action can be a symbol, such as a dance, a pantomime, an obscene gesture performed with the body, or an actor’s performance in a motion picture. Those who would worship the flag — the idol symbolizing free speech — to the point where they would sacrifice free speech in the name of defending the idol that symbolizes free speech, are worse than idolaters (ī-DAWL-uh- tûrs); they are symbolaters (simm-BAWL-uh-tûrs; the –tûr at the end of symbolater is pronounced the same as the tur in turn, turf, turkey, terminate, and turpentine).

Instances such as in the quest to outlaw flag-burning are the Stolen Concept Fallacy taken to another level. As explained by Objectivism, knowledge is hierarchical — sometimes for you to understand concept B, you must first understand concept A, such as how you must first understand “certainty” to understand “possibility.”

Someone falls prey to the Stolen Concept Fallacy when that person actually tries to invoke concept B in order to attempt to invalidate concept A, all the while overlooking that concept B depends upon the validity of concept A to be valid itself and that concept B is therefore valid no more than the extent to which concept A is valid. To phrase it differently, someone who uses the Stolen Concept Fallacy has forfeited any rightful ownership over concept A but, in order to make his point, he wrongfully and sneakily claims concept A for himself anyway — hence he has “stolen” the concept A. An example would be if I told you, “I am unable to communicate myself to you.” If you believed what I said, you would be falling prey to the Stolen Concept Fallacy — my being able to tell you I cannot communicate with you would hinge upon the fact that I am capable of communicating with you after all. The claim “There are no certainties, only possibilities and probabilities” is also a Stolen Concept Fallacy. As previously explained, the validity of the concepts “possibility” and “probability” hinge upon the validity of the concept “certainty.”

The politician who tries to outlaw flag burning is stealing a concept — specifically, a value — in practice. By proposing a form of censorship, the politician has forfeited the value of freedom of speech; he has abdicated any rightful ownership over the value that is freedom of speech. Yet by upholding himself as a defender of the symbol of freedom of speech, the politician is trying to claim ownership over the value of freedom of speech anyway — wrongfully.

Many of the most hazardous forms of symbolatry in politics have to do with legislation that is intended to be taken as a gesture symbolically conveying the politicians’ and activist supporters’ compassion and humanitarianism, even as the legislation harms peaceful people.

Dangerous Political Actions That Symbolize Loyalty to a Value But Concretely Undermine That Value
This is frequently visible in the case of raising the minimum wage — in the cases of alleged antipoverty legislation in general. Suppose there is no legally mandated minimum wage, and I am jobless. Then someone named Lysander offers to hire me for $5 per hour. I accept. That is a pay raise right there — I went from making zero to making five dollars per hour. Then the government decrees that there is a minimum wage of $15 per hour. If Lysander is caught paying me $5 per hour, he could be fined or imprisoned. On a cost-benefit analysis, Lysander decides that while he could profit from paying me $5 per hour for the value I add to his business, I don’t add enough value to his business where he would still profit from paying me $15 per hour for that same work. He decides he should not have me working for him. As for the people already in Lysander’s employ, either he fires some of them or keeps them all on while cutting their hours. Far from helping the poor, this measure hurts them. Absent of the minimum wage, I would be making five dollars per hour. With this minimum wage, I am stuck at zero.

For decades, supporters of raising the minimum wage have denied that such a measure has any adverse effect on employment. There is nothing surprising about that. Yet in more recent years, I have noticed a more worrying trend: there are people who support raising the minimum wage who do not deny it.

I first noticed this in my correspondence with a particular woman online. She and I had become acquainted when discussing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). She properly wanted the government to stop interfering with GMOs — and, later, I learned that she improperly wanted the government to continue interfering with pretty much every other industry. Part of her desire for such interference to continue and expand was her tirades demanding an increase in the minimum wage to what she called a “living wage.”

One of our mutual online acquaintances then showed this woman a study that evinced that, everything else being equal, raises in the minimum wage contribute to reductions in employed work hours for the poor and unskilled.

The woman then replied something to the effect of, Yes, I know the economic argument. I support raising the minimum wage because I care about the well-being of low-income families.

I was floored by her reply. I expected that she would deny that the minimum wage contributes to unemployment among the poor and unskilled. She did not deny it. She refrained from denying it and then she still asserted that raising the minimum wage is “for the poor” and unskilled.

That turned out not to be a fluke, as a higher-profile instance of this phenomenon followed. In early April of 2016, California governor Jerry Brown gave this rationale for demanding an increase in the state’s mandated minimum wage [in the link, I cued it to the precise spot where he begins what I quote him saying]:

Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally and socially and politically they make every sense, because it binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way [emphases Governor Brown’s].

He says it at the 1 minute, 24 second mark.

Let’s translate this. What does it mean for a raise in the minimum wage to “make sense” “economically” or not? An increase or decrease in the poor’s average income, as affected by legislation, is an economic effect. For most of the past five decades, hardly any supporter of a raise in the minimum wage would dispute that the very purpose of a law adjusting the minimum wage is to have an economic effect. Legislation on the minimum wage is, by definition, economic legislation. That is just as the purpose of a comedian telling jokes is to make the audience laugh. To say that you don’t care what is the economic effect of your own legislation — legislation that is, by your own design, touted as economic legislation — is comparable to a comedian announcing that he doesn’t care if his jokes are funny.

A government-mandated increase in the minimum wage making sense economically means that raising the minimum wage does exactly what its supporters of the past 50 years have claimed it would do: improve the living standards of the poor and unskilled. To admit “economically, minimum wages may not make sense” is to admit that legally mandated minimum wages do not in fact help the poor and unskilled as was previously claimed, but that they in fact hurt the poor and unskilled. Then, as if Governor Brown did not remember what he admitted a second earlier, he said raising the minimum wage “makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way.” What is the source of this seeming contradiction? Governor Brown explains that it makes “every sense” to him “morally.”

To wit, Governor Brown first inadvertently admitted that raising the minimum wage harms rather than helps the poor (the poor being his ostensive value), but he will go through it anyway as a gesture to indicate his moral concern for the well-being of the poor.

If Governor Brown genuinely valued the well-being of the poor, he would do what “makes sense” for them “economically” — refrain from raising the minimum wage and, more than that, work to abolish it altogether. In lieu of that, he performs a ritual that “makes sense” for him “morally,” which is offering a symbolic gesture of concern for the poor that, by his own inadvertent admission, does actual harm to the poor. The same goes for that aforementioned woman who didn’t even deny the minimum wage raise’s actual effect on the poor. What is purported to be the real value (the well-being of the poor) is being sacrificed and destroyed for the sake of performing a symbolic ritual that is intended to be interpreted as a show of solidarity for those same poor. That is symbolatry in practice.

Some people might respond that, in this context, my introduction of the term “symbolatry” is unnecessary. They might say there is already a term for this, and it is a term much beloved on Twitter by right-wing people who have cartoon characters for their avatars: “virtue-signaling.” But I am not accusing Governor Brown and that aforementioned woman of mere “virtue-signaling”; there are important differences. To accuse a man of “virtue-signaling” is to put emphasis on his desire to convince other people of his own exalted moral status. Rather, my suspicion is that Governor Brown and that woman are performing the ritual of pushing for this legislation in order to convince themselves that they are caring and morally upright. Furthermore, when a man is accused of “virtue-signaling,” the implication is usually that this symbolic gesture is merely empty and of no effect. My accusation against Governor Brown and that woman is much harsher: they are trying to convince themselves that their performance of the ritual indicates compassion for the poor and yet, on some level, they are at least vaguely aware that the ritual’s completion — meaning successful passage of the minimum wage increase — will actually harm poor people in real life. This symbolatry is much more harmful than mere “virtue-signaling.”

When gestures which symbolize help for the poor — and are actually known to harm the poor — are prioritized above the poor themselves, I do not consider that a good intention. As I said before, it is for that reason that I object to the common right-wing accusation that left-wing supporters of antipoverty measures are all about good intentions while not caring the results. As one Wall Street Journal op-ed put it, “Too many policy makers evaluate new interventions — labor rules, wage laws, environmental regulations — only by what they hope to accomplish. They do not consider the consequences, the unintended effects, and the trouble that their policies will cause for employers and workers…” (emphases added). The subheading that Journal’s editors (not the op-ed’s author) chose was, “Free enterprise is under assault from politicians who only care about good intentions, not results.” A conservative who says this reveals a flaw in his thinking far larger than the flaw he imputes to the left-wingers, as that conservative overlooks the very meaning of a sincere intention.

Just as the concept of “50 percent” derives from “a single unit,” the concept of “sincere intention” derives from the concept of “producing the results desired.” Should I have a sincere intention to erect a stable house or not, then I definitely care if, as results of my efforts, the house gets built and remains standing and stable in the ensuing years. But suppose I announce my strong motivation to build a house and, five years later, you notice no house is built and, when you ask me about it, I shrug it off. Moreover, ever since the day subsequent to my announcement, I made no effort to have the house built. Insofar as I am indifferent to the results, it is proper for you to conclude that I held no sincere intention to build that house after all. And a sincere intention is the only kind of intention there is — to be insincere in professing to intend to build a house is to lack the intention of building a house.

 You can observe the degree to which a person intends to do something by observing the degree to which that person cares about obtaining the results he claims to desire. Even if a person enters a competition she knows she probably will not win, if you observe that she made every effort to do her best within the rules, you know her intention was still to win.

Suppose my home has an insect infestation. I decide to do something about it — I obtain Brand A of an insecticide and spray it. I say that my intention in this is to kill the insects. After the first try, the insect infestation remains. I try four more times; the insects remain. I therefore decide that to attain the desired goal — eliminate the insects — I must try some other measure. I therefore hire an exterminator who uses Brand B on the insects. Finally the insects are gone and I am satisfied.

In that scenario, you can tell that when I claimed my intention was to kill the insects, that was indeed my intention. You can tell as much by how I handled my methodology. I said that I intended to bring about a particular result, and that I was using a particular method — Brand A insecticide — to try to bring about that result. After repeated attempts with this one method, I did not obtain the desired results. Because I was not lying to anyone — not even myself — about intending to kill the insects, I was therefore willing to try another method. In short, if the person saying that he intends to reach that desired goal has tried one method to reach it repeatedly and has always failed with that method, you can tell whether he intends to reach that desired goal by observing his willingness to try some alternative method to reach the desired goal.

 It is therefore illogical to assert that someone has a particular intention when not caring about the result. Someone intends a specific outcome insofar as this person concerns him- or herself with bringing about the result that is this very same outcome. The allegation that a politician “cares about intentions and not results” implies that the politician does not care if X happens but does care to take an action solely or mainly in pursuit of making X happen.   A person intends a particular result insofar as he cares about the result.  An intention without concern for results is a contradiction in terms. For a conservative to accuse anyone of caring about intentions and not results is for that conservative to reveal that he does not understand the meaning of “intention.”

Now suppose I say that I intend to kill all the insects in my home and I try Brand A insecticide. I try four more times and it hasn’t worked. I am introduced to other options. I reject them in favor of trying Brand A insecticide 95 more times, contaminating my house and filling it with fumes. Is it really my intention to eliminate the insects? You would be proper in judging the answer to be no. More likely, my intention was not to eliminate the insects but to go through the motions of “taking action” with respect to fighting off the insects. If my intention was to kill the insects, then the result of killing the insects would take priority over trying Brand A insecticide over and over again after a consistent record of failure.  Indeed, “going through the motions” might have been the original expression for someone merely making gestures that put on the pretense of taking constructive action exactly as one refrains from taking constructive action.

Likewise, if a man says that the intention of his legislation is to reduce poverty, you can observe how much this really was his intention by whether he pays attention to whether that legislation actually reduced poverty. Should it be the case that this man and his colleagues successfully pass such legislation across the country and, after four decades of failure, they are still pushing for more legislation of this type, there will come a point where you are rational for doubting that their intention is to reduce poverty. The likelier explanation is that their intention is to go through the motions of “doing something” about it, just as a man who uses the same ineffective insecticide a hundred times intends not to kill the insects but instead to go through the motions of “doing something” about the insects.

Let’s take a look at someone who truly intends to reduce poverty. When he first started his campaigns to fight poverty, the musician Bono put all his emphasis on the most conventional measures, such as calling for increased foreign aid and trying to pressure the World Bank to forgive debt to developing countries so that they could obtain even more loans. Back in 2002, Bono approvingly told People magazine, “We are taught not to court success here” in Ireland. “There’s an old story about an American and an Irishman looking up at a mansion. The American looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to live in that place.’ The Irishman looks at it and says, ‘One day I’m going to get the bastard who lives in that place.’” The implication in what Bono said was that the Irishman’s view is the correct one.

But after years of his campaigning, Bono observed that to place most of his emphasis on taxpayer-funded aid was not a winning strategy. Because he did intend to fight poverty, he was therefore willing to adjust his methodology. He eventually observed that political-economic liberalization — what he explicitly called “capitalism” — is the most effective antipoverty measure. In 2015, Bono admitted to Rolling Stone that he had decided to make it a priority “to understand commerce — I think that’s very important. If you told me 20 years ago that commerce took more people out of poverty than aid and development, I’d have scoffed.” He is not scoffing anymore. True, he has not given up entirely on recommending taxpayer-funded foreign aid or debt forgiveness, but his willingness to shift emphasis and recommend more liberalization is what evinces that his stated intention to try to fight poverty was indeed his real intention.

Bono talks about capitalism at the 38 minute, 4 second mark.

Conversely, consider some elderly political Progressives, such as Ralph Nader. Purporting to intend to reduce poverty, Ralph Nader has continued for a half-century to urge the very same policy of raising the minimum wage, and, after proclaiming that poverty has not been reduced, he urges this some more. If reducing poverty was Nader’s consistent intention, there would have been some reconsideration on his part, self-reflection comparable to Bono’s. It is not that Ralph Nader cares about his own intentions and not about the results. Rather, Nader does care about the results, and he is getting the results he intends — to go through the motions and make a symbolic gesture to fight poverty. And as Nader and his disciples obtain success in their having their measures ratified, the poor are hurt.

For someone to agitate for legislation that symbolizes helping the poor, all the while knowing on some level that the legislation’s passage will hurt some poor individuals, is not to have good intentions.

Here, the stolen concept or stolen value is “concern for the poor.” By pushing for legislation that demonstrably harms the poor, Governor Brown has relinquished any rightful claim to the value that is “concern for the poor.” Yet, by invoking his legislation as a gesture to indicate his concern for the poor, he is trying to claim custody over the value that is “concern for the poor” anyway — wrongfully. “Concern for the poor” is a concept and value which Governor Brown is trying to steal.

Insofar as a value is sacrificed and demeaned in a ritual or gesture that ostensibly represents devotion to that same value, that ritual or gesture is a symbol that has been corrupted.

Rush Limbaugh categorizes instances such as this one as “liberals” putting “symbolism over substance.” Sadly, conservatives such as Limbaugh are not immune to that malady either.

Gestures Symbolizing Loyalty to Law and Order That Undermine the Concrete Purpose of Law and Order
Exactly because we need law and order, we should ask ourselves why we need them. They are not ends in themselves; they are intended to serve a greater value and, therefore, the enforcement of any law must be justified by the standard of whether it actually succeeds in serving that greater value. Insofar as the U.S. republic continues to be about freedom and the other ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the law is to serve the greater value that is the safeguarding of individual rights —   meaning that the law protects peaceful people from the initiation of the use of force and that it does not itself initiate the use of force upon peaceful people. After all, the Declaration of Independence does not say that the right not to be aggressed upon belongs to citizens alone; it says the right not to be aggressed upon belongs to “all men,” meaning all peaceful people.

Therefore, although suspected criminals are to be judged before courts of law, the law itself is still not the ultimate standard by which the respective moral statuses of people’s actions are to be judged. We must ask whether the ordinance or statute in question deserves to be kept on the books. As such, the law itself must be judged by the ultimate standard of whether it succeeds in protecting peaceful people against the initiation of the use of force and refrains from initiating the use of force itself. Nonviolent people do not exist for the purpose of obeying America law; American law exists to protect any and all nonviolent people within its jurisdiction. Accordingly, when statutes are not properly crafted — and when their errors go uncorrected — the statutes themselves become corrupt. This is what has happened to federal U.S. immigration law.

Starting in the 1920s, federal immigration law was openly racist, imposing strict “caps” on the number of immigrants who could come in from Eastern Europe and from countries with majority nonwhite populations, while being less strict toward immigration from Northern and Western Europe. A reform in federal immigration law in 1965 genuinely corrected many of these injustices but, on account of some poor planning on the part of the reformers, the reform instituted a new injustice. I cannot fault the reformers much for the poor planning, as it would be difficult for me to anticipate all such negative consequences. Where I do find moral fault is that, in the subsequent decades, this problem has been pointed out many times and many people — mostly on the political Right — refuse to acknowledge the need to rectify this inequity, instead rationalizing the continuation and perpetuation of the injustice.

The issue is this: although the 1965 federal reform on immigration abolished what were the formal quotas on national origin based on race, they still require that to immigrate lawfully to the USA for a long-term period, you need a license from the U.S. federal government. That license is a piece of paper called a visa. There are three basic categories for visas: student visas, family reunification visas, and work visas. Student visas are for foreign nationals attending university in the United States — the sort of visa most familiar to my former classmates at Hawaii Pacific University, most of whom were from Northern and Western Europe. You can receive a family reunification visa if you already have family members in the United States. In some respects, the family reunification visas were part of a compromise with the anti-immigration, pro-racism lobby. Since whites still were the majority in the USA in 1965, they figured that most family reunification visas would still go to white people, or that at least nonwhites who did not have family members already in the USA would be at a disadvantage (and that is indeed the case).

The third type is a work visa. The most famous sort is the H-1B visa, which is for immigrants who can provide skilled labor. The H-1B visa is most famously associated with Silicon Valley information technology workers, but it goes to members of all sorts of skilled professions, such as doctors and university professors. H-1B visas seldom ever go to persons lacking a university degree; an exception is made for fashion models; a fashion model lacking in a university degree can still obtain an H-1B visa.

There are categories of visas for unskilled laborers; these are respectively H-2A visas and H-2B visas. These visas are for much shorter-term stays in the USA than are H-1B visas; an H-2B visa lets you stay in the USA for two years before renewal. Conspicuously, they are even less accessible to unskilled people in poor countries than are H-1B visas to skilled visa applicants.

A relatively new form of visa, introduced under the Obama administration, is the entrepreneurship visa. This is for established business owners wishing to immigrate to the USA to set up new business operations here. As you can imagine, this is not a visa applicable to most unskilled people in developing countries who do not have university degrees. Later we will return to the topic of entrepreneurship visas.

The problem with current federal immigration law is this: the 1965 reform placed a new “cap” on the number of visas that could be issued to particular countries annually. No more than 7 percent of all visas issued in a year can go to applicants of any one country. This rule failed to anticipate that because Mexico is a poor country that is directly adjacent to the United States, it would make sense that a disproportionately large percentage of the people wishing to come to the United States would be from Mexico. Annually, 30 percent of all visa applications arrive from Mexico. You can see how this mismatch would bring forth a dilemma.

People from Bangladesh desire very much to come to the USA too, but they know that in any attempt to travel to the USA they would face geographic obstacles that a Mexican would not. The biggest obstacles for Mexicans in coming to the USA are not geographic but legal barriers imposed by the U.S. federal government.

The backlog for yet-to-be-approved visa applications is a nightmare. If the U.S. federal government received no new applications, it would still take over 19 years for it to clear its entire backlog of visa applications waiting to undergo full processing. On average, it takes a Mexican more than five years, from the start of the process to its end, to receive a family reunification visa. If you are in Mexico and are the spouse or minor child of a permanent U.S. resident (U.S. citizen or green card holder), you can expect to wait no fewer than six years. If, as a Mexican, you are the sibling of a U.S. citizen or green card holder, it is sixteen years.

And if you are a thirty-year-old Mexican with a high school diploma and you have a sister who is already a U.S. citizen, the average length of time you must wait to become a noncitizen U.S. permanent resident — one of those green card holders — yourself is . . . 131 years.

Most poor countries are poor exactly because their governments are kleptocracies. This means that the government usually refrains from protecting its citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and private property but, more often than not, violates them, and can actually violate them on the whim of the governments’ officials. People cannot count on building up productive businesses without all their wealth soon being confiscated, and that is why poverty is rampant. Only those who are well-connected with the government can operate any business securely at all. Under this system, with most people unable to count on the government for protection, many of them turn to gangs instead. For this reason, rates of starvation and murder are disproportionately high in comparison to what goes on in the First World. When someone in a kleptocracy that is south of the USA tries to migrate to the USA, it’s not a matter of someone greedily wishing to come to the USA to go on welfare; it’s a matter of someone trying to avoid dying from starvation and murder.

As Steven Sacco informs us,

One study found that between January 2014 and September 2015 eighty-three deportees who were sent back to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were murdered after their return. They were people fleeing the killers who eventually took their lives. People like José Marvin Martínez, who fled violence in Honduras and made it to the U.S. when he was 16, but was deported and four months after his forcible return was shot to death. Or Juan Francisco Diaz, also deported back to Honduras, where he too was murdered a few months later. Or Giovanni Miranda, who, after spending most of his life in the U.S., was deported to El Salvador to be murdered in front of his wife and son in June 2015. Or Edgar Chocoy, 16, who ran away from a gang to the U.S. only to be murdered by that same gang seventeen days after he was deported back to Guatemala in 2004. Or an unnamed teenager who was shot to death hours after being deported back to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Moises, 19, was murdered after he was deported to El Salvador. And there are too many more names we’ll never know. 
What’s more, the number of deportees delivered directly to their killers does not include those who survive attempted murder or other violence because of their deportation — a number no one knows. Isais Sosa, who was 19 when the Los Angeles Times covered his story in 2014, survived being shot by a gang days after his deportation. The 19 year old daughter of Dora Lina Meza fled to the U.S. from the same gang that, after she was deported back home, raped her at gun point. After Juan Ines Alanis was deported he was kidnapped and held for ransom while his fingers were smashed with a hammer.

Many apologists for these coercive deportations claim to admire Ayn Rand — we will discuss that further in the next bit. Note that if Ayn Rand had been deported back to the Soviet Union — and the legality of her immigration status was “iffy”  — she likely would have suffered the same fate as the aforementioned deportees.

Remember that when someone is being deported, he is being supervised by federal agents who have guns at the ready. When you are deported from the United States, this is something that federal agents do to you at gunpoint. They point guns at you to coerce you to return to a place where there is a high murder rate. As far as I am concerned, those who supported that the aforementioned people be returned to their nations of origin at gunpoint are, morally, accessories to what happened to the deportees upon return to their countries of origin.

When most people in a country are poor, very few of them can afford university educations. Therefore, except for the fashion models, H-1B visas are seldom an option for them. And the work visas for the unskilled are even less accessible. This means that if you are poor and unskilled, with no university education and no relatives in the USA, you don’t have many options available to you if you wish to migrate to the USA legally. And it’s not realistic for anyone to expect you to wait over five years for any sort of application to be approved; the threats of starvation and murder are immediate concerns. This is why so many poor people come to the USA without any visas. It is not an accident that {SPOILER ALERT} a virtuous character in We the Living tries to cross a national border illegally.

The deportations are anti-life for other reasons. As I wrote of it months after the incident, there was a time around late 2015 — as the Syrian refugee crisis was beginning to make headlines — when I was reading Rebecca Stott’s book Darwin’s Ghosts, about thinkers who had laid the intellectual groundwork for the theory of natural selection. Near the beginning, Professor Stott points out that because so many Athenians feared Aristotle as some sleeper agent for their military enemies, Aristotle had to flee Athens as a “political refugee.” This struck me because, although I had previously read of Aristotle leaving Athens for this reason, it didn’t dawn on me that the term “political refugee” applied to Aristotle, and yet, upon reflection, it fit. Not thinking that it necessarily had any implications for the Syrian refugee controversy, I tweeted out that there was a point in Aristotle’s life when he was a political refugee. Evidently finding the idea interesting himself, Prof. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “The Instapundit,” retweeted me, himself adding, in words that can easily and understandably be interpreted as sarcastic, “Any Aristotles in this crowd?” I was then barraged by a number of belligerent tweets from generally right-wing people who presumed that my tweet was some thinly-veiled defense of the Syrian refugees. The belligerent tweets were along the lines of, But Aristotle was a civilized man; Syrians are congenital savages and And there is not one scientist among the Syrian refugees, is there? As one anti-immigrationist put it to Professor Reynolds, “find one illegal like Aristotle.”

It had not occurred to me that my tweet could be misconstrued as me sticking up for them, but, after reading the bigoted derision of them that was directed toward me, it ironically became easier for me to sympathize with the Syrian refugees. Incidentally, there are scholars among the Syrian refugees. Rolling Stone magazine chronicles the travails of one of them, a former agricultural engineering major trying to finish his education. One Syrian refugee who did complete his education is Nedal Said, now a microbiologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. Frankly, though, if there were zero scholars among them, the Syrian refugees would still be deserving of our sympathy. If a group of people are to be kept out of the USA on the basis that the USA is presently at war against their country, that is one matter. Even in that case, though, it would not be just to attempt to write off everyone from that country and of that ethnicity, with a broad brush, as inhuman. After all, there was a moment in history when the wartime enemies of the United States looked a lot like me.

Nedal Said’s story reminds me of another. Decades ago, an impoverished boy in Mexico named Alfredo illegally climbed over a fence to get into the USA. Consistent with the stereotypes, he started out as a migrant farm worker. He saved his money and sent himself to medical school. This was Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, and he is presently one of the world’s foremost brain surgeons. Prolific in the number of operations he has performed, he has saved the lives of native-born Americans. These are native-born Americans who might have died had it not been for Alfredo illegally entering our country years ago. Coercive deportations of nonviolent immigrants may not only result in the deaths of more immigrants, but also of more native-born Americans. Incidentally, Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa was the answer I gave to the anti-immigrationist who challenged me to “find one illegal like Aristotle.”

Many people who come to the USA without visas have committed no felony other than the ones directly concerning their having come to the USA without a visa.  For instance, Andres Magana Ortiz — who owned and ran successful coffee farms in Hawaii — is under threat of deportation when, aside from having arrived in the USA without a visa, his only brushes with the law involve two charges of having driven under the influence. Similar to this is the case of Joel Colindres, who faces deportation when his only instances of lawbreaking were (1) migrating from Guatemala to the USA without a visa and (2) missing a court date. And even before Donald Trump made his decision on DACA, the Savaria brothers — both DREAMers — were repatriated to El Salvadaor. Contrary to hysterical right-wing scare stories, you are statistically likelier to be killed by a native-born American than you are by an undocumented immigrant to the USA. Therefore, a legal system committed to freedom and justice — one that serves its original purpose of protecting the peaceful from the violent — would refrain from sending armed men to detain and deport peaceful persons whose acts of lawbreaking all pertained to the mere act of coming to the USA peacefully without a visa.

Yet I frequently come across anti-immigrationists on the political Right — Rush Limbaugh is one of them (I take him to task for it here and here) — who insist that simply coming to the USA without a visa is an act of evil that warrants condemnation and violent retribution on the part of the U.S. federal government. Apologists for that viewpoint shout, “Do you think people should be able to break the law with impunity? The Law is The Law and we gotsta follow The Law!” I remind such people that deportations are backed by armed force. Suppose I invite a Mexican to lodge on my land in the USA. That Mexican agrees. But that Mexican crossed the border without having a visa. Enforcing the law in this case means that armed government agents come onto my land and abscond with the Mexican. When they transport that Mexican back to Mexico, they have their guns at the ready in case he tries to flee their custody and return to my private plot. Deportations are backed by armed force. Again, the anti-immigrationists merely chant that The Law is The Law and we gotsta follow The Law!

People who preach that someone coming to the USA long-term without a visa is sufficient grounds for sending armed men to detain and deport him are practicing their own symbolic ritual, one not unlike Governor Jerry Brown’s. They shout about the need to respect and enforce the law because this ritual of chanting about it has symbolic significance for them. They say that it is their way of reminding everyone of the importance of the law — that if people can flagrantly disregard the statutes, then all order and society breaks down. But that assertion is disingenuous; those who keep chanting about the need to crack down on illegal aliens are not primarily reminding other people about anything. Rather, these people partake in this symbolic ritual — the ritual of reciting their platitudes about the sacredness of federal law — to convince themselves that they passionately care about the law and everything the law represents.

And yet they don’t. The law is not the end but the means to a greater end that the law is to serve. That greater end is the principle that no peaceful person is to be subjected to the initiation of the use of force by any party, least of all by the federal government. If you do not value the greater end that U.S. law was first established to serve, then you do not understand what U.S. law is about. In proclaiming their love for American law, many people are asking that American law violate the moral principle that American law was initially established to uphold: to prevent the initiation of the use of physical force upon peaceful people. Those who demand a government crackdown on undocumented immigrants qua their lack of documentation, are those calling for violence against peaceful human beings for the proclaimed purpose of defending an institution whose only justification was to prevent violence against peaceful human beings.

Of course, anti-immigrationism has its arsenal of rationalizations for this. Stefan Molyneux rationalizes that people from Africa and South America are just programmed to go on welfare, and, by collecting welfare, such immigrants are the ones initiating the use of force against native-born whites. This is just another instance of Molyneux’s ignorance and presumptuousness (a more polite way of referring to Molyneux’s prejudice).

When you say “welfare” in the United States, the first program that normally comes to mind is federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and, since 1996, an immigrant needs to be a U.S. resident for five years before so much as applying for this.

Moreover, the biggest entitlement program in the USA is, by far, Social Security. At $800 billion per year, it’s the only program that rivals the U.S. military in annual cost. Because undocumented immigrants use fake Social Security numbers, the farms and other businesses employing undocumented immigrants take money out of their pay and put it into the Social Security system. (If you object to how an impoverished immigrant fleeing the high murder rate of his country of origin is using a fake Social Security number to obtain employment, remove the legal barriers that drove him to this desperate resort in the first place.) And this is Social Security that the undocumented immigrants will not collect — the recipients of the undocumented immigrants’ money are retired native-born Americans and retired naturalized citizens, the native-borns greatly outnumbering the naturalized. It is therefore, on a net balance, the undocumented immigrants who are paying taxes to support welfare that goes to native-born Americans.

Among the recipients of taxpayer money, native-born citizens outnumber immigrants by far; it is therefore disingenuous to single out undocumented immigrants as being the major contributor to the rising costs of the welfare state. If collecting taxpayer money is an initiation of the use of force, then repelling it would mean cutting taxpayer funding for all private parties. To target immigrants, on the pretext that they are primarily what drive up government spending, is to prioritize one’s hostility toward immigrants over any lightening of the tax burden.

Nor is there a long-term threat of mass migrations causing overcrowding throughout the country; people underestimate the quantity of land available in the United States. If there were eight billion people on Earth and they all relocated to Texas, Texas’s population density (27,923 people per square mile) would be less than the present population density of the city of Paris, France (55,673 people per square mile). At present, no more than twelve percent of the land in England is developed for urban use and no more than nine percent of the land of the United Kingdom is.

To demand that an immigrant having arrived in the USA without a visa is sufficient grounds to send armed agents after her, out of a purported respect for American law and order, is therefore a symbolic ritual paid to American law and order that, in practice, disrespects the greater value that American law and order were designed to safeguard. It is a symbolic gesture that pretends to pay heed to American law and order as it desecrates the basis of that American law and order. To do this, one must love the symbol of a particular value more than one loves the concrete existence of that very same value.

The stolen concept and stolen value is “American law and the very basis of American law.” By supporting governmental initiations of the use of force against undocumented, nonviolent immigrants, these right-wingers have relinquished any rightful claim to the concept and value of “American law and the very basis of American law.” Yet, as they do this, they try to claim custody over the concept and value of “American law and the very basis of American law.” As Limbaugh has done this, he is not innocent of the very charge he lays at the feet of left-wingers, of putting symbolism over substance.

Sadly, too many people who call themselves Objectivists also do the same.

Objectivism Versus Symbolaters Who Call Themselves Objectivists
I’m much less conspicuous and loud about announcing my interest in Objectivism today than I was when I was sixteen . . . exactly because I’m more fanatical about it today than I was back then. To me, studying Objectivism is selfish — it’s about what I get out of it, and therefore I put more priority on learning about it on my own private time than I do on proselytizing about it to others. To the degree that I have ever enjoyed trying to explain it to someone else, it mostly came from the challenge of trying to phrase the arguments in my own way. My trying to put it in my own words was often a test that helped me gauge which aspects I did and did not understand, and it also helped bring to my attention which points I was unclear on.

Unfortunately, too many people on social media who call themselves Objectivists are more interested in something else. It seems that too many of them are pathologically grouchy men (there are pathologically grouchy women too, but mostly men) who are at levels of accomplishment no better than mediocre, but who seem to believe they are promoting Objectivism by posting an endless stream of right-wing propaganda that they tout as confirming their perpetual fear that Western Civilization, having been corrupted from within, is on the verge of collapse. Usually these so-called Objectivists stress that the coup de grace to the West will be delivered by undocumented Hispanic immigrants or by Arabs. Oh, yes, there are the tiresome postings that go on all day long about one’s hatred for Arabs and Muslims — yes, I understood your hatred for self-described Muslims in general the first thousand times you said it.

Often these grumps focus on everything they think is wrong, and when an accomplished Objectivist focuses on something positive, the grumps will try to put a damper on it. When Yaron Brook speaks of his admiration for the great feats performed in Silicon Valley, the grumps denigrate it by saying that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are all wrong in politics, as if this diminishes their discoveries in science and engineering. Another example is that when some Objectivist girl in university would praise the fiction of J. K. Rowling, the grumps would come along and denigrate J. K. Rowling for her politics. Upon seeing this, I thought, What? The girl wasn’t even defending J. K. Rowling’s politics; she was praising J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Indeed, many of the grumps patrol social media and, when they catch someone phrasing some idea in a way that Ayn Rand would not have phrased it, they pick a fight and “correct” that person. One of them, a ungentleman named Anders, spent hours and hours — then stretching into days and days — on the same thread, going back and forth in a futile “flame war.”

Anders is typical of a symbolater — in his philosophic postings, he has introduced no new ideas; what he says is pretty much repeating stuff Ayn Rand said . . . when he isn’t promoting stuff from right-wing websites that are often inconsistent with Objectivism. In the case of symbolaters, even the phrasing is unoriginal. Someone who has internalized Objectivist ideas and retains such ideas because, upon much reflection, he judges them to be correct, is able to phrase those ideas in his own words; even as he explains or paraphrases someone else’s ideas, he is able to do so in his own unique voice. By contrast, because symbolaters are simply reciting what they have memorized, a symbolater is quite conspicuous when he tries to proselytize Objectivist ideas. As soon he starts saying what Objectivism’s message is, the symbolater’s writing no longer reads as if it’s in his own voice; the phrasing, word choices, and “voice” come off as a knockoff of Ayn Rand. I’m not so worried about that among teenagers who recently learned about Ayn Rand, many of the same phrases and expressions that are idiosyncratic to Ayn Rand’s writings (such as “whim-worship” and “the death premise”) frequently pop up; it is understandable that such adolescents are still trying to find their own voice. But when an old man suddenly starts proselytizing and he sounds as if he’s just repeating Ayn Rand’s favorite phrases, that’s another story.

In multiple postings each day where they tout the impending apocalypse brought on by North African immigrants and refugees, the grumps appear to be engaging in their own symbolic ritual. The endless hysterical postings are actually purported to convey the grouchy posters’ loyalty to Objectivism; they claim this is their method of promoting Objectivism. But it often looks more like another highly negative and self-destructive habitual ritual: the habitual ritual of some adolescent girls to use a blade to inflict cuts on their own wrists.

When adolescent girls cut themselves regularly, that is often a ritual, though, as with most of the case studies I have mentioned, the symbolic meaning is usually not in their conscious minds. The implicit purpose of the self-cutting is to perform some gesture indicating that one can still exercise some control over her life. The self-cutter inflicts pain and physical damage upon herself, but she rationalizes that at least it is pain and physical damage she controls, in contrast to most of the pain she previously experienced, which was imposed by other people and was therefore outside of her control. Of course, whatever control these people claim from the self-cutting is fleeting. In the long run, they ultimately cede control and autonomy because they let the morbid gestures take over — they feel that they must continue the ritualistic morbid gestures regularly to feel “functional” and “all right.” This is a ritual that symbolizes a short-term reclaiming of control when, in the long term, control over oneself is sacrificed.

I fear that the regular pessimistic postings of many people who call themselves Objectivists serves a similar function. The regular pessimistic and apocalyptic postings help those people feel that, for a while, they can exercise some control — while they cannot control all of the insanity that goes on in the rest of the big bad world, at least they can control what they say about it on social media. But the habitual expressions of pessimism and paranoia take over, and, in this respect, an actual long-term recognition of one’s control and responsibility for one’s life ends up being sacrificed.

As Aristotle pointed out, the basis of learning is observation. In effect, going around social media and picking fights is not a winning strategy for creating a more rational society.

I knew a very eccentric woman who was a student in the classes of a rather unusual free-market theorist, a rocket scientist-turned-lecturer on capitalism. She was misguided in many respects, but she told me something that has always stuck with me. One day I asked her why she didn’t talk much about what that rocket scientist’s ideas on free markets were. She said,

The most effective method of teaching the importance of having a live-and-let-live society isn’t going around starting arguments. You demonstrate your principles primarily by living them. Converse and write about these topics if you want, but that is secondary at best. Most vital is living by these principles consistently in your normal daily life. I was once with a group of people who knew of my disapproval toward what one of my neighbors was doing. My neighbor was defying a particular ordinance, and I easily could have gone to the authorities and snitched on him. My friends then wanted to know why I didn’t do so. I replied that while I didn’t approve of my neighbor’s behavior, I approved even less of using government force to punish an action that, while very annoying, was still nonviolent and not severe enough to be considered an encroachment upon my property. They asked me, “How did you come to such an odd conclusion?” That was my opportunity to explain it to them. 
Stuart, when other people see you very consistently living by your principles, the honest and curious among them will be impressed and will ask you what’s your secret. And when that happens, they will be much more receptive to what you have to say.

That story can be summarized in five words, five words consistent with Aristotle and scientific experimentation: Demonstration is the strongest argumentation.

That is where the quotation from Bruce Wayne, with which we opened this essay, is correct: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.”

If you want to talk about the importance of pursuing your own values freely and peaceably and selfishly, do so. But more than that: actually do it. That is of greater educational value than are a hundred seven-hour flame wars on social media.

One of the more severe manifestations of this is the manner in which some self-proclaimed Objectivists have made themselves apologists for Donald Trump. Here is one guy’s explanation for Facebook-unfriending me:
I have great respect for the objectivist community and the individuals in it, but I have to say... I can pretty much tell who is a mindless drone by how much they [sic; this is using a singular they] hate Trump, and who is an independent and integrated thinker by who recognizes Trump’s essential goodness, achievement, integrity, and love for his country. And who can see through the left’s dishonest smear campaign to the truth.


Not all self-described Objectivists who voted for Trump are this sycophantic toward him, naturally. Some of them admit that Trump is unprincipled and that their vote for him was cynical, mostly on account of their holding a bigger grudge against Hillary Clinton. Too many self-described Objectivists, though, did praise Donald Trump as some free-enterpriser and, even more worrisome, climbed onto the bandwagon on account of their sympathy for the sleazes of the alt-right and alt-lite.

But, really, this?: “Trump’s essential goodness, achievement, integrity, and love for his country”? What is going on here?

What is going on is that since 1987 with the publication of The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump has convinced many people that he is a symbol for American free enterprise and success. Too many people who call themselves Objectivists have latched onto that superficiality, and their devotion to Trump comes from this syllogism that is based on a faulty premise.

  1. Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy appreciates American free enterprise and success.
  2. Donald Trump is regarded by many people to be the symbol for American free enterprise and success.
  3. Applying Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy means that Donald Trump should be celebrated for embodying American free enterprise and success.

Of dispute is 2. People should examine whether the evidence indicates that Donald Trump is worthy of being associated with American free enterprise and success.

I wish I could tell you that I was never taken in by Trump’s myth-making about himself, but that is not the case. When I was seventeen years old, I said to myself, “I want to be a successful entrepreneur. Therefore, I should learn from the masters. I will read up on Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Donald Trump.” Whenever I spotted a newspaper article about any of them, I clipped it out. In the few years that followed, I read various biographies on the three of them. (At the time, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs made the news headlines much more frequently than Trump did, even as The Apprentice was on the air.) None of those three men are perfect, of course, and now my favorite great inventor-entrepreneur in history is probably George Westinghouse (but that is another beautiful story for another time 😄). But even after learning about the faults of Gates and Jobs, I could still consider them helpful models for what they have done in a professional capacity. I cannot say the same of Mr. Trump — the more I learned about him, the less I could respect him overall, even as far as his business decisions went. It was his habit to over-leverage himself and then stiff his creditors; as a businessman, that was his greatest commonality with the U.S. federal government and, in that respect, he did have authentic training for what it took to become a run-of-the-mill U.S. President — that and that he already had no compunction about exercising government power to confiscate other people’s private property. The evidence pointed to Donald Trump not being John Galt but James Taggart.

There is no shame in being fooled initially by someone’s deceptions — Cherryl Brooks, too, initially fell for the false pretense that James Taggart was a productive businessman. But there is shame when more and more facts come in that disproves one’s initial positive impression and yet, contrary to the facts, one clings to one’s initial impression. That is the faking of reality. We have more and more information coming in that exposes Donald Trump as consistently dishonest — as is common for a pathologically dishonest man, there are examples of him telling lies that are small (the fake Time magazine cover depicting him, which he put in his golf clubs, and also bizarrely posing as someone named “John Miller” who talked up Trump) and telling lies that are big (the denials about collusion with Russian officials).

The most consistent trait of the Trump presidency is Mr. Trump’s pathology. I cannot fault anyone for initially becoming interested in Donald Trump in 2015 — many old people remembered him from the 1980s, when he had a much more glamorous reputation on account of much less being known about him publicly — though the very speech in which he announced his candidacy already indicated something was wrong with him, what with the bigoted stereotypes about Mexican immigrants (stereotypes that are not unlike what was commonly said about Chinese immigrants a hundred years ago). But what I do find disturbing is that even after so many facts about Trump are uncovered, too many people who call themselves Objectivists clutch their initial and false conclusion that Donald Trump embodies such Objectivist principles as candor, a respect for private property rights, and the freedom to trade peaceably with any other peaceable party regardless of that other peaceable party’s nation of origin. To go on hailing Trump as the symbol of free enterprise, against all facts, is not an exercise in rationality or indication of adherence to Objectivism; it is to act in the capacity of a symbolater.

As I said in the beginning, a symbol is worthy of the symbolic meaning invested in it insofar as there is substance — that is, factual evidence — to support it. Despite his many faults, Steve Jobs still deserves to be considered an icon, an idol, a symbol representing entrepreneurial productivity. Steve Jobs has himself made some very stupid remarks, the most egregious being “Good artists copy; great artists steal” (for an explanation of why that cliché is so heinous, see my blog post on it here). But Jobs’s achievements as an entrepreneur are real. Unlike Donald Trump, Steve Jobs didn’t run up huge debts and then take advantage of bankruptcy-law loopholes to cheat his creditors. Unlike Donald Trump, Steve Jobs didn’t lean on Atlantic City officials to attempt to steal a woman’s house or issue a thinly-veiled threat to “destroy” a state lawmaker for defending private property rights against the civil asset forfeiture racket.  Those are not minor nitpicks; they are not behaviors that right-wingers or so-called Objectivists would tolerate in a Democratic politician or self-described socialist.

If a man is going to be held up as being representative of the virtues that made America great —virtues such as financial responsibility, respect for private property rights, and honesty toward both oneself and others — then that man should have a record of exercising those virtues. To hold up that man as a representative of those virtues after the facts demonstrate otherwise is to demean those virtues and instead prioritize a false image of those virtues. This makes as much sense as talking up Bernie Madoff as a pillar of wise investing even after his Ponzi scheme came crashing down and was exposed.

One symbolic association with Donald Trump that does demonstrate merit is the comparison of him with the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus — a metaphor always implied in the accurate pronouncement that Trump publicly exhibits narcissistic traits. It is often said that Narcissus only cared about himself, but that is misleading. Narcissus’s top concern was his reflection — that is, not himself but an image that supposedly represented him. Narcissus gave priority to that image — an image that was far too inadequate in representing his character fully — as he allowed his actual, concrete self to waste away and perish. That is the same sin committed by those who falsely uphold Trump as the image of free enterprise and candor — uphold it as the Trump administration makes mockeries of both free enterprise and candor. The stolen concepts and stolen values are American free enterprise and candor. As with Narcissus and Trump apologists, the reality is being sacrificed for the sake of an image, a symbol.

Those who admitted to supporting Trump for cynical reasons are not much better off than the Trump sycophants. The cynics stated that although they winced at Trump’s incredible distastefulness, it was most important for them to “stick it to the political Left,” especially the Left’s politically-correct “Social Justice Warriors” who were so offended by Donald Trump’s sexism (sexism on Trump’s part that is, all too obviously, real and not imagined). The cynics developed such a grudge against the Left in the first place because of the Left’s consistent attacks on liberty. I cannot deny that the Left has been hostile to liberty. Thus, the cynics let their hatred for the Left metastasize into a pathology that overrides every other consideration, including the love for life and liberty. When the cynics “supported Trump” mostly as a figurative middle finger to the Left, it was an appallingly puerile gesture symbolizing a last desperate defense of liberty. In reality, this support contributed to Donald Trump coming to power so that he could deprive immigrants, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and free traders of liberty. This includes Trump’s imposition of a delay on “entrepreneurship visas.” The cynics’ gesture was a symbolic salute to liberty and an obscenity against actual liberty.

As I said earlier, a principle or rule of conduct is also a symbol — the rule is an easy way to remember what specific course of action to take when a particular sort of situation arises. As we see in the case of anti-immigrationists, there is a hazard in trying to apply the same rule in every instance regardless of context — of trying to apply a rule when the context does not warrant it.

The most infamous example of this comes from Immanuel Kant. In a normal everyday situation where you are dealing with nonviolent people, “You should tell the truth” is a good rule. Kant then raises a hypothetical situation previously brought up by French classical liberal Benjamin Constant. In this scenario, a girl named Margaret is being chased by an assailant who wants to kill her. Margaret knocks on your door and asks you if she may hide in your home. You agree. Then the assailant knocks on your door politely(!), and says, “Excuse me, good sir, but there is a girl named Margaret whom I want to kill, and whom I think might be hiding in your home. Please tell me: is Margaret in your home?” Kant actually tells his readers that if you truly believe in the principle of honesty, then you should tell the truth to the would-be murderer: yes, Margaret is in my home.

This is enormous concept-theft and value-theft on Kant’s part. We have to examine why honesty is important. Honesty is important in normal everyday situations because it protects innocent human life. If innocent, nonviolent people are relying on you to be honest, and then you tell lies to them — as Mr. Trump does — that will hurt those people. Hence, the preservation and furtherance of innocent human life entails being honest with innocent, nonviolent people.  Conversely, if you tell the truth to a would-be murderer who will use that true information to commit murder, that will hurt innocent human life, not protect it. That is why the rule of “You should tell the truth” is applicable when interacting with innocent, nonviolent people and inapplicable when interacting with a would-be murderer. For you to do as Kant demanded is for you to engage in a gesture symbolizing a respect for honesty when, in fact, doing as Kant demands in this situation would destroy the very justification for honesty.  And by disrespecting the very justification for honesty, one disrespects honesty itself.

Kant’s writing of this inanity seems to have been a symbolic gesture on his part as well — a gesture symbolizing his own consistency on principle.  This same gesture actually amounted to a self-contradiction on his part — what was to be interpreted as consistency on the matter of honesty revealed an inconsistency in  Kant’s claim to be concerned about the life of the individual.  This, too, is symbolatry.

For me, this is not merely theoretical, as it came into play with a clique of people in Norway who call themselves Objectivists. When you’re interacting with people who are not suicidal and not expressing homicidal ideation, “don’t go blabbing to other people about your friends’ insecurities” is a good rule. Insofar as your friends aren’t suicidal or homicidal, to refrain from telling others about your friends’ insecurities is to respect their well-being and autonomy. However, that rule is not applicable if your friend later shows herself to be severely mentally ill, severe to the point where she has resumed exhibiting a continued fixation on suicide, self-mutilation, and even homicide.

Years ago I became very emotionally close at Hawaii Pacific University with a girl from Norway, to whom I introduced Objectivist ideas. She informed me about her having a long history of threatening seriously to commit suicide, and also of her body dysmorphic disorder: of her hating her face and wanting to find some way to disfigure it to punish herself. She even showed me her old blog where she stated all of this explicitly, in English. “[I] wish i could get hold of a knife so i could cut up that ‘little pretty’ face of mine," she posted publicly years earlier. “Cut it up and make it ugly, just as ugly as I feel..[.] i wanna fuck my face up so no1 [no one] will ever recognize me.” As this was a lot of material, I read it bit by bit over a period of months. My Norwegian friend assured me that she was finally in recovery, and I believed her at the time. When she returned to Norway for a summer, she told me that without me around, she wished there were people with whom she could have face-to-face conversations about free markets and Objectivism. On Facebook I came across a circle of Norwegians claiming to be Objectivist; at the first few glances I took, everything seemed to be on the up-and-up, and I introduced my friend to the group. Later the circle convened around a Facebook page it made called “Libertinius”; Libertinius being the name of a cartoon character who wears the Statue of Liberty’s coronet. That the coronet is supposed to be the Statue of Liberty’s is far from obvious, though, since the Libertinius character is purple all over (not a very well thought-out combination of symbols).

Unfortunately, my friend started to resume the suicidal, self-defacing, and even homicidal gestures. At the encouragement of several members of the clique, she uploaded grisly images in which she was photoshopped as a corpse with a chalky white face — the pallor mortis stage where the blood has stopped circulating. Now this was a case of someone using symbolism and actually having a record to back up the symbolism — the corpse imagery coming after a series of blog posts where my friend repeatedly announced a desire to be dead literally.  I was and am relieved that my friend did not use a knife to slash up her face, but the corpse imagery demonstrated that she found another way to “fuck my face up so no1 [no one] will ever recognize me.”  If that wasn’t already bad enough, one of the more famous members of the Norwegian Objectivist(?) clique — an internationally known artist who photoshops himself as a corpse — uploaded a very disturbing video onto YouTube of my friend delivering a monologue in which she characterizes herself as a neo-fascist “of the Fourth Reich,” alluding to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Some people tried to rationalize that my friend was “just being a Goth.” But I have known Goths, and not once did they give me the impression that they wanted to be dead literally. (Now there is a case where I can be grateful about some people’s favorite symbols — symbols of death — not being translated into concrete action.) By contrast, my friend didn’t just depict herself as a symbol of death — this was consistent with her having publicly documented her own suicidal ideation for years. This was something that was necessary for me to take seriously.

I tried to talk to my friend about this by myself. She responded by feigning memory loss; she pretended not to remember having informed me of her history of suicidal and body dysmorphic gestures. Even more disturbing, she actually expected me to play along and help her pretend that she had never mentioned any of this. After this, though, I was not willing to give up on an intervention.

Many people in Hawaii noticed my friend’s morbid gestures but very defensively told me they would never participate in any sort of confrontation with her because they were too intimidated by confrontation in general and by my friend in particular.

I then came across a blog entry that my friend had written earlier: a blog entry that my friend wrote that is a serious murder threat for her mother. She does not say she has a long-range plan to kill her mother. What she does say is that she imagines that one day her mother’s nagging and scolding will anger her so much that she will finally lose control, grabbing a knife and stabbing her mother with it. How she imagines this will play out, my friend describes in graphic detail.  The danger is not merely to my friend’s mother; I have seen that she is capable of developing that level of rage toward anyone to whom she has ever felt strong emotional attachment.

I let members of the Norwegian clique know of the context behind my friend’s morbid gestures — that this was not a matter of her liking symbols of death and darkness for aesthetic reasons, but that she has a history of wanting to be dead literally. I asked that no one would go along acting as if the morbid gestures are safe and acceptable, as refraining from bringing it up is a tacit form of reinforcement. The Norwegian clique’s members responded not with compassion and understanding for my friend, but with hostility toward me. They said it was evil and that I had broken the cardinal rule — not to talk about my friends’ insecurities. They said that my telling anyone else of my friend’s psychiatric condition was an assault on her well-being and on her autonomy. They blackballed me and some of them, such as Tore Rasmussen, went around announcing that I am all about harassing my friend.

Here is what is really going on: by proclaiming that I was evil for having broken this rule not to talk about my friend’s mental illness, the Norwegian clique of pseudo-Objectivists was evading the basis for any rules of social conduct: life as the standard. “Don’t talk about your friends’ insecurities” is a rule that remains in effect on the condition that your friend is not presenting herself as a violent threat to herself and others. That rule is not applicable when your friend is exhibiting indications of being a violent threat to herself and others.

Prioritizing a symbol over the actual value, the Norwegian clique obstructed my intervention in a symbolic show of solidarity with my friend — a gesture to convey respect for my friend’s well-being and autonomy. And as the clique’s members did this, they reinforced my friend’s pathology — the actual, pressing, and obvious threat to my friend’s well-being and autonomy. These enablers to pathology were “protecting” my friend in the same way that Galileo’s persecutors were “protecting” Aristotle. The clique was too myopic and, frankly, insipid, to notice that a right to privacy does not apply to violent threats; nor is one wrong to ask that compassionate attention be directed toward someone who is making suicidal and even homicidal gestures very visibly. The concept and value that the clique has tried to steal is that of concern for my friend; by prioritizing symbolic support for her over a genuine addressing of her self-endangerment, the clique member’s have abdicated any rightful claim to be concerned about my friend’s well-being and autonomy, and yet in their hostility toward me they expected me to believe they were claiming to possess concern for my friend’s well-being and autonomy.

That was just the first of many indications, though, that this clique, which revolves around the “Libertinius” page, is about making symbolic shows of support for Objectivism even as the clique, in its behavior, defiles the very principles that Objectivism espouses. I was wrong in my initial and superficial evaluation of the Norwegian “Libertinius” clique as being a safe to associate with. From 2011 to 2015, the “Libertinius” page denounced Norwegian politicians for disrespecting private ownership rights as the Libertinius page itself repeatedly and regularly plagiarized other people’s explicitly copyrighted political cartoons and, bizarrely, even claimed credit for memes that other people had created (just because someone doesn’t sign a meme he made, that doesn’t give someone else permission to put his logo on it and pretend that it came from him). During the 2016 presidential race, this allegedly nonconformist clique road on the Trump bandwagon and, holding itself as the defender of private property rights, approvingly shared propaganda announcing that Donald Trump had done nothing worse than having “said mean things” — was Donald Trump’s attempt to confiscate a woman’s house by force nothing more than him saying “mean things”?

Libertinius's upload of the meme that dishonestly says Trump's only misdeed was that he "said mean things." This is double propaganda on the Libertnius page's part, as the Libertnius page posted, in the comments section, one of Ben Garrison's many adulatory cartoons glorifying Donald Trump and Stefan Molyneux. When the Libertinius page posted that, Stefan Molyneux was already well-known for touting the inflammatory and scientifically dubious claim that blacks are biologically programmed to be violent whereas whites are not. Clicking on this link will take you to the Archive[Dot]Is archive of the Libertinius Facebook-posting.

In case anyone is interested, here is a correction of the mendacious meme.  The final accusation against Hillary Clinton on the very bottom is particularly baseless.

What was left out by the original meme insisting Trump merely "said mean things" and nothing worse.

 Throughout 2016, the Libertinius page touted itself as the promoter of individualism as it also promulgated the demagoguery and xenophobia (1, 2, 3) of Stefan Molyneux (and Stefan Molyneux mostly parrots the racism and eugenics of J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn of the Pioneer Fund, the latter of whom Molyneux gave an adulatory interview). When I first glanced at the clique’s websites and pages and introduced it to my friend, most of the clique was not promoting the foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobia that would emerge from 2013 onward. One prominent writer in the clique, though, was already pushing and citing the eugenics of J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn, though this was typed out in Norwegian and I hadn’t bothered to read translations of his pro-eugenicist writings at the time.

Quite apart from it having been in poor taste to begin with, my friend publicly “joking” about being a neo-Nazi “of the Fourth Reich” — again, facilitated by that well-known artist in the Libertinius clique — was especially unwise in light of the Libertinius clique’s consistent xenophobia and support for the alt-right. If you don’t want people to think you’re a neo-Nazi, then (1) you shouldn’t upload videos saying you’re from “the Fourth Reich” and (2) you shouldn’t be around people who recommend the propaganda of Stefan Molyneux, a known “Race Realist” (“race realist” being a euphemism for racist). (Here is an instance of the Norwegian media calling out the Libertinius clique, very properly, on the clique’s demagogish falsehoods.)

And after all this, some of the younger members of the “Libertinius” clique in Norway, apparently having surmised that in the years after the clique had blackballed me I had gained new clout among prominent Objectivists, actually now want me to endorse and approve the “Libertinius” page and the clique’s various other front groups (such as “the Capitalist Party of Norway”). Hell, no; I don’t appreciate the phoniness of the “Libertinius” clique. Starting in 2017 the “Libertinius” page apparently stopped with the plagiarism and stopped promoting Stefan Molyneux’s racism. But it’s too late; here’s an example of a symbol already being too corrupted. Getting the stink off would involve disavowing Kjetil Knausgård, Emil Christopher Solli Melar, Tore Rasmussen, Carlo Nerberg, and the rest of their bigot brigade. It would mean liquidating the “Libertinius” character altogether and not trying to start over again with some other symbol or project.

In more recent years, it appears my friend lost interest in the “Libertinius” clique and that she stopped uploading images of herself photoshopped as a corpse; she looks alive and human again. However, she legally changed her last name to that of a relative whom she had repeatedly hinted had facilitated severe abuse toward her. And, based on what some of her other relatives have said — including what one relative recounted to American newspapers and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s very left-wing book — there is a strong basis for suspecting that the hints point to something that really did happen. The name change, too, is a gesture symbolizing that everything is OK now. Yet knowing the context behind it casts doubt on what that symbolic gesture is attempting to convey. Knowing the context, the name change looks like another, albeit subtler, morbid gesture. Hence, there is reason to ascertain that my friend is not in recovery and the situation with her still isn’t safe.

See? She Told Ya So
Now here is one case study in symbolatry that is not as obviously tragic. On social media, it seems to have become fashionable for people to tout themselves as “investor” or “entrepreneur” when they have no promising or established enterprise to show for it. I wish I could tell you I have never taken part in such silliness, but I can’t. When I was seventeen and going through my Donald Trump fandom phase, I went around announcing, “I’m an entrepreneur!” Then someone would ask me, “What is it you sell?” To that, I could only reply, “I . . . don’t . . . know . . .” It was quite reminiscent of that scene in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion where Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow keep announcing in a diner “We’re businesswomen!” and then a waitress asks them, “What business are you in?”

Later I noticed that when successful and innovative entrepreneurs are asked to describe themselves, entrepreneur is seldom the first word that comes to their minds. They do not start off saying, “I have decided to be an entrepreneur! Now I have to decide what it is that I sell...” Nay, they tended to follow a different path. Usually what happened is that someone started out as just some weirdo who was really obsessed with something and later found a method for monetizing that obsession. There was once a boy named William who was obsessed with feet. Whenever his parents introduced him to adults, he insisted on inspecting the adults’ feet. He even carried around the skeletal remains of a human foot wherever he went with him. Eventually William grew up to be a podiatrist. Inspecting feet for a living, he noticed that many of the sores and bunions on his patients were the result of their having worn impractical shoes. William resolved to design a much more ergonomic, comfortable model. He did exactly this and patented it, and built a whole business around it. That is how Dr. William Scholl started the company that bears his name, Dr. Scholl’s.

Learning this, I remembered what that eccentric woman told me about how being a good example in your normal everyday activities is the greatest demonstration of any principle. Nowadays I try not to go around announcing that I like to think of myself as entrepreneurial. It’s not even good for me to announce that I am a writer. What matters is that I work on the creative pursuits that hold my interest, and that is what I will have to show for myself — not some title I have tried to bestow upon myself prematurely. “Fake it until you make it” is foolish advice. Regardless of what anyone else thinks, just try to make it — and never fake anything.

This is the point where a hater might say, “If Ayn Rand and Objectivism are so great, why didn’t Ayn Rand anticipate that there would be really silly people who recite her principles but do not live by them?”

Well, not even Ayn Rand could anticipate everything. I just appreciate the writing that she did leave behind. If there is something she did not explain and which I need to figure out for myself, that is no failing on her part; she has already done a lot.

However, it turns out that there are two works in which Ayn Rand did anticipate this phenomenon. In a number of respects, it is described well in her novella and play Ideal. Ideal is — it should not surprise you at this point — a work I consider to be heavy on symbolism. Throughout the story, people from various walks of life tell the glamorous actress Kay Gonda that they value her so highly that they would risk their reputations and social standing for her. They are then presented with the opportunity to act on that very promise — and all but one of them refuses. Therefore, all those phonies’ professing their veneration of Kay Gonda was meaningless at best; their letters, full of accolades, are gestures and rituals that symbolize their placing value on Kay Gonda. But in their actions, they demonstrate they do not value Kay Gonda.

{SPOILERS} Upon meeting the one man who acts upon his professed ideals, Kay Gonda discusses with him the reasons why society has gone so wrong. Initially, she thinks of the false fans who betrayed her as “Those who cannot dream.” To this, the true idealist corrects her — the false fans are “Those who can only dream” (emphasis Rand’s) — meaning that the phoniness comes from people who talk big about philosophic ideals but, when presented with opportunities to act on such ideals, default instead.

This is Ayn Rand’s anticipation of people who claim to value Ayn Rand and Objectivism and yet, through their actions — whitewashing Trump’s authoritarianism, promoting Stefan Molyneux’s bigoted rationalizations, ostracizing the one person who tried to intervene on behalf of a friend publicly exhibiting her suicidal and homicidal ideations — demonstrate hostility to the integrity and individualism and freedom and commitment to love and values that Ayn Rand championed.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand also had some choice words for people tout themselves as being serious investors, serious entrepreneurs, or just plain committed to philosophic ideals when, in practice, they have nothing to show for it. In Francisco d’Anconia’s words, such people “seek to reverse the law of cause and effect.” When Cherryl Brooks saw James Taggart’s commercial success — success that was actually James’s piggybacking off of Dagny’s work — Cherryl attributed that success to be the effect of a particular cause: that cause being productiveness. Cherryl was right, of course, that productiveness is the cause of the effect that is commercial success, but she didn’t consider that maybe James Taggart was mooching off the of the productiveness of others, just as in his shady dealings, Donald Trump has piggybacked off the productivity of other people. To be a serious investor or serious entrepreneur is an effect — the effect of productiveness. When people go around announcing themselves to be serious investors or serious entrepreneurs, they do so because they wish to be seen as productive, as if that will give them the cause (productiveness).

However, when they do not have much to show for it, such people are trying to gain the cause (productiveness) by being associated with the effect (being seen as a serious investor or serious entrepreneur). The same goes for the grumps and phonies of the “Libertinius” circle trying to gain a reputation for being serious about philosophy. A reputation for being serious about philosophy is the effect. The cause of it is consistently acting in accordance with one’s professed philosophy. That means not practicing plagiarism, not immediately doubling down when caught in the plagiarism, not promoting Stefan Molyneux’s racism, and not conveniently scrubbing all that in some effort to hide the wrongdoing.

As I said earlier, symbols will always be important to us — at their best, they are cognitive tools whereby we expand our understanding of what goes on in the concrete, literal context — but they must not be prioritized to the point where the symbol of a value takes precedence over the value itself. A gesture symbolizing someone’s defense of some value has genuine meaning, and deserves all of the positive emotion invested into it, no more than the extent to which that gesture preserves and upholds that value in concrete practice.

 To the degree that freedom of speech is upheld in the United States, people are right to venerate the American flag as a beautiful symbol of the freedom of speech. But when politicians propose a law to penalize burning of the American flag — that is, a law to censor disparagement of the flag — it is those politicians, far more than the flag-burners, who devalue and undermine the American flag’s stature as a symbol of the freedom of speech. If you make a Facebook page to praise Ayn Rand and denigrate her detractors — all the while plagiarizing other people’s copyrighted political cartoons — you insult and dishonor Ayn Rand far worse than her detractors ever have.

Yes, cherish your favorite symbols, your favorite symbols representing your professed values. But more than that, the symbols representing your professed values shall retain their glory no more than the extent to which you abide by those same professed values in your literal, concrete actions.

This is full of some of my favorite symbolism --
symbolism that retains meaning insofar as it is backed up by concrete action.


Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

On July 22, 2017, I added the quotations of Bono from 2002 and 2015.  On July 28, 2017, I added the part about the Joel Colindres case. On Wednesday,
September 13, 2017, I added the sentence about the Savaria brothers, and I added more links and elaboration about what happened when Glenn Harlan Reynolds, the Intapundit, retweeted me about Aristotle.