>Tundra in the Midwest

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I will never understand what strange psychological problems lead people to drive this kind of total monstrosity in the Midwest of all places. Besides being an environmental nightmare, it is incredibly ugly and inconvenient. Getting into it and finding a place to park it must be quite a production. 

I keep wondering whether the proud owner of this coffin-like structure even knows what tundra is and whether he is hoping to find it in Southern Illinois. It is pretty cold here right now but we are still too far away from turning into a tundra.

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>Who Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union?

>I have read several articles dedicated to the collapse of the Soviet Union recently. These articles attributed the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and the fall of the Communist system to a variety of the weirdest agents. There are analysts who are so uninformed as to believe that the Soviet system came to an end as a result of the actions of President Reagan or even the CIA (yes, the same CIA that failed in every single major operation it ever attempted to carry out.)

From somebody who saw the disintegration of the USSR from within the country, this is what happened: Forget Reagan, Bush Sr., the CIA, the FBI, and James Bond. They had nothing to do with the situation in question. There was a certain group of people in power in the Soviet Union. That group of people decided that the economic system of the Soviet Union couldn’t be milked for much more profit because it had worn itself out completely. So they introduced a new economic system (which, of course, had to be accompanied by a new political structure and a new ideology) that allowed them to remain in power and exploit that system a lot more profitably.

So, in reality, there was no real collapse, breakdown, or anything of the kind. The same people who were in power before, are still in power now in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is funny how Americans, who have this weird delusion that they are the root cause of pretty much everything in the universe, keep trying to find reasons for what happened to a huge country on a different continent within the US.

>Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: A Review, Part II

>Among other things, Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) is such a joy to read because of his brilliant deconstruction of Christopher Hitchens’s obnoxious God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything: “Hitchens seems to hold the obscure Jewish sect of the second-century BC known as the Maccabees responsible not only for the emergence of Christianity but also for the advent of Islam. It is surprising that he does not pin Stalinism on them as well.” Eagleton is absolutely right when he suggests that atheistic fundamentalism is in many respects an exact copy of religious fundamentalism. It is just as intransigent, dogmatic, reductive, and obnoxious.

Everything I have said so far might produce the erroneous impression that Eagleton is trying to create a defense of Christianity. This is, of course, not true. The critic is opposed to a unilaterall dismissal of this complex and intricate worldview but he recognizes that “Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more stupidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins.” Apart from Eagleton’s unintelligent characterization of Stalinism as stupid, this statement could not be more true. Many people’s hatred of Christianity has nothing to do with Jesus’s teachings but is rather addressed to what many of the proponents of this religion have done with it: “Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neocons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right.” (I swear to God in heaven, that if I ever learn to write half as good as Eagleton, I will die happy.) Are the actions of many of its followers enough, however, to discredit Christianity once and for all?, Eagleton asks. Haven’t the tenets of Liberalism, the ideals of Enlightenment, the central points of Marxism suffered the same fate? Does this mean, then, that we should abandon all of these ideological and intellectual movements in their entirety?

In his brilliant analysis, Eagleton hits upon an absolutely wonderful definition of Christianity that I have been searching for my entire life: “Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is … effectively worthless.” It is amazing that a Marxist like Eagleton has been able to understand the very nature of the New Testament so much better than all the quasi-religious freaks out there put together and multiplied by five.

One of the things that make Eagleton’s philosophy especially endearing to me is his passionate defense of the values of Enlightenment. He enumerates the ways in which Enlightenment has come to defeat its own basic propositions but still maintains that the task of Enlightenment is far from over. Just like Christianity, Enlightenment has been discredited by the atrocities done in its name by its misguided, unintelligent followers. This is why so many people today fall over themselves in their rush to abandon the Enlightened philosophy as wrong, evil, and outdated. These thinkers are just as wrong as the wholesale deniers of the value of religion. Eagleton himself was guilty of Enlightenment-bashing on more than one occasion, and I am glad to see that his position on the issue seems to have shifted towards a greater degree of reason (pun intended.)

One of the most fun characteristics of Eagleton’s writing is the way he pokes fun at Americans: “For some in the USA, the C-word is ‘can’t.’ Negativity is often looked upon there as a kind of thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness.” Eagleton defends his way of voicing his critiques that soem people may stupidly deem offensive: “Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes ‘abuse’ clearly have a problem.

Once again, let me reiterate that this book is fantastic. If you only read one book of philosophy this year, let it be this one You are going to have a blast reading it. It is one of those books where you feel extremely sad to turn over the last page because you want the jouissance to continue.

>Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Terry Eagleton: A Review, Part I

>In April of 2008, Terry Eagleton gave a series of talks at Yale University. Since I was in the process of looking for a job, I only managed to visit the last lecture in the series. Eagleton’s brilliant lecture on religion and the subsequent reception made two things very clear to me. First, Eagleton is an amazing lecturer and listening to him is one of the greatest intellectual pleasures one can experience (especially at Yale, where intellectual pleasures – or actually, pleasures of any kind – are few and far between.) Second, Eagleton’s personal life is pretty contemptible and makes one wonder how it is possible to be so brilliant and so daft at the same time.
I was very happy to discover that a book based on Eagleton’s lecture series has not only appeared in print but has also been made cheap enough for me to buy it in Kindle version. This collection of essays is written in Eagleton’s incomparably beautiful style that is funny and incisive at the same time. The theme of the essays is fascinating: Eagleton offers an approach to religion from the Left that is neither reductive nor stupid, as similar books often tend to be. The playfulness with which Eagleton talks about religion offers a beautiful contrast to the usual deathly gravitas informing the style that academics both on the Left and on the Right employ to discuss religion.

With his incomparable sense of humor, Eagleton makes fun of the entity he calls “Ditchkins.” This is his new term for referring simultaneously to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Eagleton ridicules Ditchkins’s reductive and simplistic vision of religion that forces them to enter into an unproductive science versus religion dichotomy: “Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler. It is this autonomy of the world which makes science and Richard Dawkins possible in the first place.” Religion, says Eagleton, deserves an analysis that is at least a little bit more profound than the usual all-religion-is-bad approach taken by many Liberals. In their defense of rationalism, the critics of religion often demonstrate an irrationalism which is as strong as the one they keep denouncing: “This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals – that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance.

Eagleton doesn’t stop at destroying the pseudo-rationalist piety of the so-called progressive scientists. He also demonstrates – in his inimitable, hilarious way – the ridiculous nature of the US fundamentalist Evangelicals and their utter failure to understand pretty much anything about the religion they claim to hold in such a high regard.

Of course, as happens with every good book, there are things in Eagleton’s essay collection that I find unconvincing. Eagleton surmises that the resurgence of the importance of religion in the late capitalist society is a postnationalist phenomenon. I am a lot more weary than Eagleton of accepting the very existence of post-racism, post-feminism, post-nationalism, and the likes. In the US, for example, virulent nationalism and fundamentalist religiousness walk hand in hand and do not exist without each other. Evangelical fundamentalism has become the national idea of the US for the lack of any other set of beliefs or concerns that can possibly bind this country together. Whenever somebody begins to talk about post-nationalism and post-racism, I know that this is either a fan of the Oprah Show or an academic hiding deep within the ivory tower.

It is impossible to read this book by one of the greatest living philosophers and literary critics without having uproarious fun on every single page. If you want to indulge yourself by reading a philosophical treatise that is exceptionally well-written and that will make you laugh until it hurts, Eagleton’s new collection of essays is perfect for you.

>Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller: A Review

>I normally don’t read biographies but http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0385513992 was so much fun that I finished this huge 600-pages long volume in 4 days. Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand is extremely detailed (sometimes, excessively so), but it is overall well-written and fun to read.

For the most part, Heller sticks to relating the facts and doesn’t attempt to offer her own interpretation of anything. This is a very good decision for this author because on the few occasions that she does venture an opinion, she almost often commits some annoying gaffe. Attempting to analyze (unsuccessfully, I might add) Rand’s personality, Heller comes up with the following weird statement: “Rand was Russian by both birth and temperament. Born into a bourgeois Jewish family…” Evidently, Heller doesn’t seem to realize that if you are born into a Jewish family, you can hardly be Russian at the same time. Later on, Heller shows her complete lack of knowledge about the Soviet Union when she claims that “not much economic or technological progress has been made during Communism’s 75 year reign.” This is a glaring lack of understanding of her subject matter, and I wish Heller abstained from talking about things she knows absolutely nothing about.

I am very grateful to Heller for offering her opinions very rarely throughout the book because wherever she does, her point of view strikes me as profoundly uninformed. She goes as far as saying that the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan “saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, and possibly as many Japanese lives.” Overall, however, she sticks to the facts and spares her readers the painful necessity to confront her profound ignorance of world politics.

One of the most unfortunate characteristics of this otherwise good and informative volume is the author’s excessive reliance on the information provided by Rand’s longtime gigolo Nathaniel Branden. This talentless individual attached himself to the writer at the early age of 19 and spent his entire life mooching off of her talent and accomplishments. After her death, his earnings and importance obviously diminished, so Branden decided to keep milking his affair with Rand by sharing with the world every single detail about their sexual relationship. For some unknown reason, Heller doesn’t realize that a person, whose only way to make his living is by exploiting a sexual relationship he had with someone famous, cannot be trusted as a reliable source of information. Branden’s insistence (once again, after the woman who helped him make a fortune was already dead) that he never wanted a sexual relationship with Rand and was practically bullied into it by a 5″2′ slender woman characterizes him as a vile little twerp. It is to the detriment of this otherwise good biography that he and his embittered wife should be given so much credence by Heller.

Another thing about the book that I didn’t enjoy is the excessive, in my view, amount of detail as to Ayn Rand’s friends and acquaintances. We do not really need to know the exact date and circumstances of her encounter with every single person she ever knew.

In spite of all these faults, the book is very good and I’m glad I read it. I discovered many interesting things that I didn’t know about Ayn Rand. Her political convictions were actually closer to mine than I ever imagined. Ayn Rand was a long-time passionate proponent of women’s right to an abortion. The idea of an embryo having “rights” was as disgusting to her as it is to me. In her final address in 1981 she rallied against “family values” and the growing religious bent of the 80ies Republicans. Something tells me that she would be just as annoyed by Palin as I am. She rejected the Libertarians on numerous occasions and made fun of them.

I highly recommend this informative biography to any one who is interested in learning more about Ayn Rand’s life and work.

>Canadian Kindle!!!

>Now, it seems, the Kindle will finally be available to my fellow Canadians as well.

Here is the link to a great article on the subject by a fellow blogger and Kindle-lover. It contains many useful links that let you know how to proceed about owning a Kindle if you are Canadian.

It is extremely unfair that something as amazing as the Kindle should have been unavailable to people in Canada. Now finally my countrymen and women will be able to experience the delight of owning this wonderful device. Since I got my Kindle 1 year 6 months and 13 days ago, there hasn’t been a single day that I didn’t use it. It is the most convenient, beautiful, useful and amazing thing I have ever known.

The wireless access on the Canadian Kindle will unfortunately be limited. This happens because Canadian wireless providers are a huge, nasty mafia united in keeping the wireless costs incredibly high (as anybody who lives in Canada knows from sad personal experiences.) Still, on the Canadian Kindle you will still be able to download your books instantly and will also have the access to Wikipedia (or so it seems.)

>Ayn Rand

>The last M/MLA conference where I spoke the day after getting married was good in all respects except one: the book-fair. Normally, I love book-fairs at conferences, but this one looked more like a parody of a regular fair. It was held in the same room where banquets were served to the participants. The abundance of food presented a disturbing contrast to the paucity of actual books available for purchase. It were as if the conference organizers were trying to suggest that food for our stomachs is way more important than food for our minds. The only book there that attracted my attention was Anne C. Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand titled Ayn Rand and the World She Made. I couldn’t have afforded to buy this book (especially in the light of the threats by the governor of Illinois to stop paying our salaries) if it weren’t for a much cheaper Kindle version. I have only just begun reading this dense 600-page book and I will write a detailed review of it when I finish it. For now, however, I just wanted to write about Ayn Rand and the reasons why I find her work fascinating.

Ayn Rand, the author of the immensely popular The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is the inspiration of Libertarians (whom I dislike profoundly) and is often grouped together with people like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan (whom I despise and consider to be disgusting individuals.) I hate Ayn Rand’s deep-seated mysoginy and her profound self-hatred as a woman and as a Jew. I find her gushing descriptions of enormous dollar signs made of gold to be vulgar and pathetic. I consider her admiration of “progressive capitalists” to be childish and silly. I find many of the things she wrote to be deeply offensive. But still I believe that she is a great writer and I love her books.

I know it is hard to get past all the offensive stuff in Rand’s writing. Once you do, however, you might encounter a veritable treasure, just the way I did and continue doing every time I reread her two most famous novels**.

Of course, part of my interest in Rand has to do with the fact that I identify with her on many levels. She emigrated from a Russian-speaking country to North America almost at the same age as I did. She was Jewish by ethnic origin but not by virtue of religious belief. From what little I have been able to read from Heller’s biography, it has already become clear to me that Rand must have had an exceptionally strong form of Asperger’s. (Many of the things that seem to baffle her biographers become perfectly understandable once you think of them in terms of Asperger’s.)

If you think about it, Ayn Rand’s achievement as a writer is truly unique. She only started to learn English at the age of 21 and managed to achieve the level of language skill that allowed her to write extremely long, complex, and beautiful novels. I cannot think of any other writer who achieved a similar linguistic feat. (Please do not bring up Nabokov. He spoke English from his early chilldhood and spent a lot of time in England and surrounded by English-speaking people starting from infancy.) I started learning Spanish more or less at the same age Ayn Rand started learning English, and even though today, when I’m 33, my Spanish is really great, I could never hope to write a work of fiction in this language. And my complete lack of literary talent is not the only reason. The amount of effort it would require to achieve such a level is simply beyond me.

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes by Ayn Rand, which hopefully will make it clearer why I enjoy her work.

This quote, for example, sounds like a veritable Aspie manifesto: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” If you don’t find this beautiful, Asperger’s is probably not a part of your existence. 🙂

In spite of Ayn Rand’s declared homophobia, the following quote can be addressed to the idiots who keep voting against gay marriage rights: “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

Today, I find the following to be especially relevant. The state is threatening us with withholding our salaries and we are fed the constant exhortations to service and sacrifice: “It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.”
 
As a teacher and a researcher, I absolutely have to agree with the following: “The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see.”
 
This is so profoundly true: “The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.”
 
If only the Democrats in general and our current President in particular remembered this, how different would this country be: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”
 
Come on, don’t tell me you don’t like the following: “To say “I love you” one must first be able to say the “I.””
 
I wish the people in charge of the US foreign policy for the last century and a half thought about this: “An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”
 
Nothing could be truer than this: “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked.”
 
And this: “No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy.”
And this is just simply beautiful: “The only man never to be redeemed is the man without passion.”
 
** I want to reiterate that my praise is solely for Rand’s novels. Her essays and treatises are nothing other than silly and outdated, in my view.