What It’s Really All About

December 21st, 2009

By Brianna Aubin

“The talks at Copenhagen are not just about climate change. They represent a battle to redefine humanity.”

So says George Monbiot.  And he is absolutely right.  This is probably a little late to be reporting on Copenhagen or Mr. Monbiot’s blog entry, but the delineation of ideas in the article are so unusually accurate and clear that I could not pass up the chance to throw in my own two cents.

I recently heard it asked by a commenter on a blog I follow, “…whether it struck anybody else as strange that it so easily becomes a political or ideological debate” whenever people talk about climate change, which is supposedly a purely scientific affair.  My response was that it actually didn’t strike me as strange at all, because that’s exactly what it was.  Science and the possibility of global warming are not the essential issues at stake; they are merely excuses.

There are two great powers….and they’ve been fighting since time began.  Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit. — Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

Pullman was talking about religion and the Church, but he could have been talking about the various political dictators and movements of the 20th century just as easily.  The Church asked us for obedience and humility in the name of God and our immortal souls.  Stalin and Hitler asked us for obedience and humility in the name of the masses and the race.  Progressives ask us to do it in the name of the poor and downtrodden.  Environmentalists ask us to do it for humanity and the planet.  But all of them told us to give in and give up, to hold the will of the group above our own mind and judgment, to value others more than self and embrace self-sacrifice as the moral ideal.  Monbiot’s essay shows that he grasps the issue more clearly than most, even if he does come down on the wrong side:

The angry men know that this golden age has gone; but they cannot find the words for the constraints they hate. Clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged, they flail around, accusing those who would impede them of communism, fascism, religiosity, misanthropy, but knowing at heart that these restrictions are driven by something far more repulsive to the unrestrained man: the decencies we owe to other human beings.

Monbiot’s basic assumption is that human beings have two choices: they can either fulfill their dreams for heroism and greatness by running roughshod over the lives of others, or they can accept that the needs of others will force them to give up their own personal ambitions of heroism and greatness.  Or in the words of Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead, “Man was forced to accept masochism as his ideal — under the threat that sadism was his only alternative.”  As for the answer to this question, I must say that I agree with Rand when she goes on to call this “…the greatest fraud ever perpetrated upon mankind.”

Monbiot then goes on to say that:

Today the battlelines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments, and those who believe that we must live within limits…. There is no space for heroism here; all passion and power breaks against the needs of others.  This is how it should be, though every neurone revolts against it… this is a battle to redefine humanity.

There is no space for heroism here… I have heard these words before.  Most recently in Brave New World… the movie, not the book.  I think that the book told a better story but that the movie did a much better job of highlighting the essential philosophical points of the novel and showing, in a nutshell, what was reallywrong with Huxley’s Brave New World.  In the book, Lenina Crowne is just somebody who works in the fertilizing room; she does not at any point question the essential ideas of her world.  In the movie, she works at the education center.  After the Savage dies (which happens somewhat differently in the movie than in the book), this is what she accidentally says while in the middle of teaching a class (video):

Lenina: The ancient Greeks worshiped men of action and sacrifice whom they called heroes.  As civilization progressed, the role of heroes became more and more irrelevant.  Now we know that heroism is really anti-social behavior, that it was necessary in the old, imperfect world because heroes change things.  We’re not supposed to want anything to change.  Heroes mean that one person can make a difference….

Child: Ms. Crowne?

Lenina: Yes?

Child: I don’t see that in the book

Lenina: It’s not in the book

Child: Are you saying that the textbook is wrong?

Lenina: Well… what do you think?

Child (in shocked indignation): How would I know?  I don’t know more than the World Consensus textbook.  Neither do you.  You’re just one person.  Who do you think you are?

Forget your stand on climate change per se.  The issues Monbiot touches go deeper than that.  He is not merely asking you whether you think global warming is real, whether pollution is a threat, or whether or not you want a clean planet.  What he is effectively asking you, as an individual and a human being, is: Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are to have goals and ambitions, to dream of heroics and adventure, to hold your values as supreme and your life and mind as inviolate?  Who do you think you are to stand up for your right to exist?

For your sake and mine, I hope you know the answer.

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7 Responses to “What It’s Really All About”

  1. Tom |

    Thoughtful and well-written as this is, it goes further than I’m willing to go. I say that as a recovering Objectivist who’s been sober for many years now. During the dark days of my addiction, I read all of Ayn Rand’s books, and I even subscribed to their damn Objectivist newsletter in my late teens and early twenties!

    However, once I got further into formal study of politics, history, and public policy (and, later, when I got involved in it), I found to my shock that the Objectivist philosophy (which is what we’re talking about here) provided no answers that were useful in the real world. In fact, there’s never been anything that remotely resembles an Objectivist society (at least beyond the level of primitive tribes and hunter-gatherers).

    In short, my gut is with you, but my brain is screaming, “Hold on, hold on! It’s time to go to a meeting!”

  2. Brianna |

    It’s time to go to a meeting? A meeting of what?

  3. Tom |

    Objectivists Anonymous (OA). Just a weak attempt at humor….

    To be serious, I agree and sympathize with most of what you’ve said. There’s precious little room left for the free-thinking, imaginative, high-achieving individual — the kind of person who made the U.S. the most successful and powerful country in history. (I know I’m idealizing the type.) The truth is, our society has become so complicated and multi-layered that there are few simple solutions that are amenable to direct individual action. And that’s too bad.

  4. Brian Bagent |


    To be honest, nothing like this republic was ever tried before, either. The Greeks and the Romans came as close as anyone, but Locke, Bastiat, and Montesquieu were as revolutionary in their day as Rand was in ours. Don’t forget that the ideas of those three men took some time to take hold. They weren’t hailed immediately, and their ideas were soundly rejected in their home countries of Scotland/England and France. For that matter, Thomas Payne had to literally run for his life for his ideas and writings as well.

    The only thing at which authoritarian governments have ever been successful is spreading misery to the masses and taking care of cronies. That is the legacy of powerful government, and the sooner people come to realize this, the sooner we will get to the day when an objective society might actually come about.

  5. Tom |

    I’ve never been particularly impressed by the chaos of Athenian democracy and the strangeness and corruption inherent in the workings of the Roman Republic. Each worked for a while but in the end morphed into something less admirable.

    I completely agree with you about the dismal record of authoritarian governments. However, there’s nothing about the U.S. government, past or present, that comes even close to being authoritarian. Witness the present level of open public dissatisfaction and the good possibility that major changes can be made in the 2010 and 2012 elections. All that’s required is the will of the people. That doesn’t happen in authoritarian regimes.

  6. Brian Bagent |

    You are far more optimistic about things than I am. But, I also think that you and I have different ideas about what constitutes authoritarianism.

  7. Brianna |

    Tom – If you read Monbiot’s article in full, you’ll see that he is quite clearly stating that we have two choices: fulfill our dreams by running roughshod over the lives of others, or live meek but decent lives by reining in our natural impulses and considering the needs of others. The idea that people could pursue passion and heroism by living a life of growth and achievement without becoming either a dictator or a social worker seems to fly right by him. (The resemblance of his video game solution to the Brave New World violent passion surrogate treatments also seems to fly right by him, which is both sad and disturbing.) I quoted Rand in my response for two reasons: a) the contrast was so clearly something she identified and fought against in her works, and b) it only seemed fair to give the woman a chance to defend herself since Monbiot specifically attacked her in his column.

    As for your comments about mob rule, I am just as impressed by the idea as you are (aka not at all). This is why I am forced to groan a little every time someone says that America is a democracy. It is not a democracy, it is a constitutional republic. The differences are profound, the most important one being the recognition that not everything should be determined by vote.

    Finally, about Objectivism, perhaps it will make you feel a little better when I reassure you that although I read and enjoyed Rand’s fiction in high school, it was not until I finally picked up some Objectivist non-fiction that I was really sold on many of her ideas. Nor was my acceptance of those ideas based solely on Rand’s work; I have also been reading quite a few other things over the last few months, as you will realize if you go through some of my articles and look back at the sources of some of the quotations. Also, I am aware of how dogmatic some “Objectivists” can be when it comes to Rand and her works, which is frankly an attitude I want no part of. The woman was a brilliant and original thinker, but she wasn’t perfect and she wasn’t God and I have no intention of treating her as either.

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