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Who is John Galt? Clay, or Pitt? March 29, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

You may have seen bumper stickers around the country—not as many now as in previous decades, but I think we are likely to see more of them: “Who is John Galt?” Some of you will know that John Galt is one of the main characters in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s novel from 1957, and in the novel the question of John Galt’s identity is increasingly important as the plot develops. And perhaps, after more than 50 years, we will actually get to see a film based on Atlas Shrugged! Amazingly, this American classic hasn’t been officially visualized yet, but it isn’t for lack of trying: According to Wikipedia, attempts to boil the mammoth novel down to movie size have been underway since 1972, and Rand herself was working on the screenplay when she died ten years later. And now Lionsgate is striving to bring it to a theater near you in 2009, with (possibly) Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart. Can Jolie portray a literary hero of mythical stature? We shall see. I’d probably prefer someone else as Dagny, but I’ll watch it, and I plan on being magnanimous and ready to welcome an even partially good film. Reading about the production on the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) website made me curious: the elusive but all-important character of John Galt has two actors listed: Brad Pitt (“rumored,” it says), and an unknown, Jamie Clay. Now it isn’t likely that John Galt will be portrayed by two people, so what’s up? It turns out to be a prank: Jamie Clay is not an actor, but he is an Ayn Rand fan with friends who have a sense of humor, and they posted his name on IMDB as the new incarnation of John Galt. In this (supposedly authentic) letter posted on the Ayn Rand website The Atlasphere Clay tells the story, and claims they’d have to torture him to play John Galt. Apparently IMDB was informed that it was a prank, and the name disappeared, only to reappear again.

Now why is this worth blogging about? Because it is, in a sense, completely in the spirit of Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged. In the novel the identity of John Galt is a mystery to all but a select few, and now the movie hype is reviving the Galt mystery, apparently inadvertently.  In Old Hollywood of 50 years ago, such a mystery would have been created on purpose as part of the hype, and the tabloids would have been guessing as to the actor’s identity. Today the Internet picks up a story and it acquires a life of its own—free advertising for Lionsgate. Even so, it amuses this mostly cynical heart of mine; in a universe of conspiracies, I think Jamie Clay would probably be John Galt: Double disinformation. For those who really care, some Ayn Rand fans would rather see Christian Bale than Brad Pitt as John Galt…


Story-telling against Absurdity March 22, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.

In Spokane, WA a trial has just ended with a Not Guilty verdict: One night in November 2005 a motorist, Clifford Helm, was driving on the wrong side of the road and plowed into a car with a father and his five children; all five children died in the crash. Since Helm refused to talk to the police, there was suspicion of drugs or alcohol being involved, but that was apparently not the case. At trial, the prosecution claimed he was on the cellphone, having an argument with his wife; the defense claimed he’d had a coughing spell and fainted. There was no medical evidence of a fainting spell, and the cellphone records were deleted by mistake by the prosecution, so it came down to whether the jury believed that this was vehicular homicide or an accident. They went with “accident” (involuntary manslaughter was apparently not an option), and Helm and his cellphone are free to drive on.

            That’s the short version of the story. What I would like to share with you is a newspaper column/blog about the case, written by Spokesman-Review columnist Rebecca Mack. In her column, “Still seeking explanation for tragedy,” Mack analyzes the underlying reasons why this case has been occupying the minds of the community, and continues to do so: She says that it isn’t so much that people are unhappy with the verdict because they want revenge or retribution for the five little children—they just want to understand, so that the same thing will not happen to them or their kids, on some dark road, and the verdict (and the driver’s reticence) doesn’t offer anyone that comfort. In philosophical terms, the case reveals the absurdity and enormity of unpredictable life, and the powerlessness of every one of us when trying to take all the preventive measures that will keep us alive. Sometimes we can, but not all the time. Essentially, what Mack has uncovered is our narrative urge, the need to tell stories that make sense, so we are not overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of the universe. And (in case you now think that I think everything is meaningless) then it is up to us to create the meaning, maybe a partial little meaning, within our own little sector of reality. Many of us do that, anyway, and sometimes even appropriately, casting blame on (perhaps) the county’s failure in ensuring that the signage was sufficient, or on cellphone companies that endanger the public. Some of us are attracted to the concept of karma; some of us choose to think that there is a higher meaning which will be revealed to us at some point when we are no longer part of this reality. Some of us just hug our loved ones—people and pets—and hope for the best. The surviving parents who lost their five children are Mennonites, and have invited the driver into their midst, having forgiven him for the pain he has caused—because they have a Narrative that works for them. It probably isn’t a narrative that works for most of us, and that is why the story of the driver who killed the five children is so disturbing—it is complete in its incompleteness, so to speak. There is no illusion of comfort in the verdict; if we want comfort, we have to seek and find it ourselves.

A Theory of Just Ball March 13, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

John Rawls was a baseball fan and, in a letter to a friend, gave an argument for why baseball is the best of all games. I agree with Rawls that baseball is the best of all games, but I don’t find his reasons persuasive.

Rawls’ reasons are: (1) the rules and physical dimensions of the field are perfectly adapted to baseball skills and capacities, (2) people of ordinary human proportion can play it, (3) All parts of the body are essential to playing the game, (4) all plays in the game are accessible to the spectators, (5) it is the only game where scoring is not done with the ball, thus requiring that spectators attend to more than one location during a play, and (6) there is no time limit, so there is always time for either team to win.

This is unpersuasive because (1) is true of all sports, (3) is true of most and (5) is necessary to watch any team sport if you want to really understand how a play is developing. (4) is simply false. Unless you are watching TV monitors receiving a signal from very well placed cameras, the intricacies of the most important and time consuming part of the game, the battle between the pitcher and hitter, are largely out of sight. (6) only occasionally adds drama to the game. Teams coming back to win in the final inning from a substantial deficit are rare. That leaves (2), which is true up to a point but hardly sufficient to support the “baseball is best” claim.

Why do I think baseball is the best game? I always thought that football was more fun to play. And I don’t like watching any sport–I ‘m too restless to be a spectator.

The thing about baseball is that, during the very long season, it is there everyday like an old and reliable friend. And unlike any other major sport, almost every dimension of this very complex game can be accurately represented by statistics. So a few minutes with a newspaper and some informative websites tells me exactly what happened in the 10-15 games played every day–I don’t have to watch.

It’s very efficient.

No Doubt March 9, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

This is interesting but troubling. In criminal trials, juries are supposed to convict only if the evidence suggests the defendent is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Apparently, there is empirical data indicating that jurors are far too willing to settle for a lesser standard–guilty given the preponderance of the evidence. When jurors think it is more likely than not that a defendant is guilty they are willing to convict, except when other jurors speak up and argue for the not guilty verdict.

Mark Kleinam identifies the problem with this:  “Note the scary implication: twelve jurors, each of whom thinks that someone is probably, but not certainly, guilty will tend to find that person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

No wonder we have so many false convictions. That makes the work of The Innocence Project vital if our legal system is to function properly.

Hard Determinism, anyone? March 5, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.

Fun discussion over at “The Garden of Forking Paths” about new studies concerning hard determinism. If I can extricate myself from grading papers, I’ll put a post together about it–in the meantime, enjoy this link: http://gfp.typepad.com/the_garden_of_forking_pat/2008/02/why-reading-def.html

Beyond Firing Line March 2, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

William F. Buckley, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, died last week at the age of 82.

Buckley was the host of the political talk show, Firing Line, which ran on PBS from 1966-1999. I must confess that, during much of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Firing Line was a show I seldom missed. Although I disagreed with almost everything he said, Buckley’s rapier wit, urbane intelligence, and genuine intellectual curiosity elevated Firing Line above most of the drivel that passes for political discussion on TV.

Since his death, many writers from the right and the left have written encomia praising Buckley for his personal qualities. Yet, he held some genuinely odious views (see here and here), and he helped give birth to a pernicious conservative political philosophy that threatens core American values.

Buckley’s political views revolved around anti-communism, anti-statism, and a belief in the authority of Christianity in public life. But modern conservatism and the course of events have left much of Buckley’s perspective behind. Communism no longer exists except in isolated redoubts such as North Korea. And conservatives gave up opposition to the influence of the state when they turned government into a welfare program for multi-national corporations and the military into an agent for remaking the world in our image.

What survives from Buckley’s conservatism is a belief in the role of Christianity in public life. But whereas Buckley thought Christianity was essential because of the value it places on the human individual, modern conservatism has internalized a different aspect of Christianity–the belief that we are engaged in an eternal battle against evil, threatened from within and without by the agents of Satan.

Today’s neo-conservatives think that no government power is excessive if it is deployed in the name of the battle against evil, whether that be military power against external threats, government surveillance of U.S. citizens or legal sanctions against abortion and gay marriage.

It is no surprise that Buckley, towards the end of his life, had some reservations.