A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:
- He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
- He was a nutjob.
- He was a religious fanatic.
I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.
Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.
A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.
This is the first time and hopefully last time I'll ever review a true crime book in which I've met the victim. This unique viewing angle added a cutting edge to my reading experience, but Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial needs no added edge; it's a crisp, tight little marvel of a courtroom drama, and a great demonstration of Malcolm's potent journalistic technique.
Janet Malcolm writes odd books with small narrative footprints, deliberately structured to deliver unexpected, even eccentric opinions. Her literary biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice scours the Gertrude Stein/Alice Tolkas love affair for signs of dysfunction, then examines the improbably friendly relationship the two Jewish-American women maintained with a vile French Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fay, who allowed them to remain in their idyllic French countryside home throughout the Second World War. Malcolm writes and argues with such skill and confidence that her conclusions often feel unimpeachable, though its not clear what we are supposed to do about them.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills follows a recent murder trial in central Queens, New York. A once-promising marriage between Daniel Malakov and Marina Borukhova, two attractive young ethnic New Yorkers (she a doctor, he an orthodontist, both members of the tight-knit Bukharian community in Forest Hills and Rego Park, Queens) took a wrong turn once they had a daughter. They fought over how to raise the child and caromed suddenly towards a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It got much worse when Marina accused Daniel of sexually molesting their toddler. Her accusation was highly unconvincing, a transparent effort at gaining an upper hand in the custody dispute, and a disgusted public official decided that the child should live with Daniel. Marina then hired an older family relative to shoot and kill Daniel. At the end of the trial observed in this book, both Marina and the hit-man Mikhail Mallayev are convicted and sentenced to life in jail.
I wrote Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a new book now available for Kindle, to fill a vacuum. I'm pretty sure it represents a completely original approach to the works of Ayn Rand.
There are a lot of smart people in the world who value Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and there are also a lot of smart people who don't. This ought to be the making of a great public debate ... but the two sides don't debate.
Instead, they call each other names. Non-objectivists caricature Ayn Rand as a shrill proto-fascist and mock the enthusiasm of her fans. Her fans circle the wagons and remind each other that the world is full of cowards who can't handle Rand's clear thinking anyway. Both sides seem to just wish the other side would go away. This is how we treat a philosopher who dares to write with strength and originality?
Egoism, the belief that people can or should only act on their own individual self-interest, is the great unchallenged premise of our age.
It’s hard to imagine that many people fully subscribe to this idea, and yet there is no well-known critique of egoism. Various religions or social/political activist movements point away from egoism, but religious or political writers rarely confront the egoist premise directly. Many people object instinctively to the egoist idea, but there is no popular common understanding of why the egoist premise is a weak and unconvincing one.
Those who advocate the egoist view of life have been more vocal and more direct than those who don't. Several philosophers are associated with the egoist position, though they each cover distinct facets of the egoist doctrine, with vastly different attitudes:
Why do the models we use to understand the human mind often seem so shallow, so unsatisfying? Could it be because the great discoveries in this field have not been made yet?
Plato wrote of the mind in a cave, groping towards the light. Sigmund Freud broke the mind down into three components, Id and Ego and Superego. Ayn Rand depicted the mind as heroic raw intellect, needing only to throw off its chains. All of these models have their purposes, but they creak and sputter under real-world use.
We can't blame the great philosophers and psychologists of the past for not trying hard enough, but we should look to future thinkers to help us understand our conscious selves better, and I suspect there's some low-hanging fruit on this tree. The question of the self -- what it is, how it evolves over time, how it relates to other selves -- is the great philosophical puzzle of our current age.
Two and a half years after the shocking suicide of celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, a conversation is emerging -- in fits and starts -- about how Wallace's readers can possibly comprehend his life story, and how the book industry may be processing it. David Freedlander wrote an article for the New York Observer titled "Dead Author Breeds Big Business". Closer to the heart, Wallace's good friend Jonathan Franzen set off a Twitter firestorm by musing during an interview with Tim Walker of the Independent:
The author struggled for years to get to grips with [The Pale King, a newly published posthumous novel] and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”
At least one blogger was infuriated by "Dave died of boredom":
It’s enormously disingenuous and insulting, not only to people who are still alive and dealing with severe depression, but also to Wallace - who is ill-served by such poorly-executed mythologizing nonsense - and, well, *Wallace’s goddamn wife*.
I would give Franzen a pass here, since I think he was waxing ironic, pointing us piquantly towards the incomprehensible koan that the suicide of every talented artist or public figure leaves behind. Boredom is as noble a form of anguish as any other (as Lee Rourke or Lars Svendsen would confirm). I'm not completely sure what Franzen is alluding to with this remark -- boredom with literary possibilities? boredom with success? boredom with the inside of his own brain? -- but it's an interesting point, and Franzen could not have meant it to be understood in a trivial or demeaning sense.
I began this five-part series (informally titled "Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong" -- the previous four sections are here, here, here and here) by quoting Rand's own succinct summary of her ethical philosophy, and I'll repeat it today:
Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
--Ayn Rand, 1962
I believe this is terrible advice, yet I know Ayn Rand's ideas have become increasingly popular. What you've seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong. I have a particular argument in mind, but I feel a bit flummoxed by the fact that I can't find another major thinker who has expressed the argument I wish to express, which leaves me in the ironically Randian position of having to stand here alone, supported by nobody else, screaming my argument to the skies.
I catch episodes of "Jersey Shore" on MTV whenever I can -- because it's hilarious, that's why -- and during a recent episode a powerful realization came over me.
I'd heard a friend complain that this show signaled the fall of Western culture due to its brainless, shameless exhibits of hedonism. Wondering about the validity of this critique, I started thinking back over various episodes and trying to catalog the instances of shameless hedonistic behavior I could remember. Here's what I started thinking of:
- Snooki and the Situation mugging for the camera.
- Pauly D. playing his music in a nightclub.
- Pauly and Vinny trying sincerely to fall in love.
- Sammi and JWoww fighting the best boxing match since Tyson/Douglas in 1990.
- Everybody dressing up, fixing their hair, checking themselves out in mirrors.
- Big communal meals, everybody cooking and cleaning (or not cleaning) for each other.
- Not much sex, lots of "smushing".
- Angelina having a full-scale freakout after the group ostracizes her, and leaving.
- Sammi having a full-scale freakout after Ronnie cheats on her, creating a drama that goes on to consume about ten hour-long episodes.
- Ronnie having a full-scale freakout after Sammi pretends to get revenge, and tearing all Sammi's possessions to pieces in an insane roid-rage, followed by Sammi leaving.
"Psychological egoism" is the name given to a theory widely held by ordinary men, and at one time almost universally accepted by political economists, philosophers and psychologists, according to which all human actions when properly understood can be seen to be motivated by selfish desires. More precisely, psychological egoism is the doctrine that the only thing anyone is capable of desiring or pursuing ultimately (as an end in itself) is his own self-interest. No psychological egoist denies that men sometimes do desire things other than their own welfare -- the happiness of other people, for example; but all psychological egoists insist that men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take it to be a means to their own happiness. In short, purely altruistic and benevolent actions and desires do not exist; but people sometimes appear to be acting unselfishly and disinterestedly when they take the interests of others to be means to the promotion of their own self-interest.
--Joel Feinberg, "Reason and Responsibility", 1958
I'm going to go out on a limb, so to speak, with today's blog post.
Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?