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SUNNI: You've sure done yeoman's work on the analysis. This month marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. How've those ten years been for you?
CHRIS: I've written quite a few retrospectives on the occasion of this tenth anniversary (see Ten Years After, for example), and I can tell you that these last ten years have been terrific. I've had my ups and downs, health-wise, due to a congenital, lifelong intestinal illness, which has required many surgical procedures and which has resulted in many cumulative complications. But, professionally, I've been able to complete my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy, which was 20 years in the making, in addition to editing anthologies and journals, writing articles for professional periodicals and mainstream newspapers, and discovering the wonderful world of cyberseminars and blogging.
SUNNI: Don't let me forget to come back to cyberseminars and blogging, sweetie! As expected, on Amazon the reviews for your work are all over the place, including one reviewer who calls you an "effective poison" for Objectivism. Do you still get a lot of negative email for your work? How do you deal with it?
CHRIS: The negative stuff ebbs and flows; it hit fever pitch in April 2004,with the receipt of some really awful email that came in the light of a monograph I wrote entitled Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation. How do I deal with it? Well, you know, you asked me earlier about my favorite Rand books, and maybe this speaks to my naming of The Fountainhead as my favorite Rand novel as much as it does to my own strategy for dealing with the negativity. I think what most touched with me was Roark's almost Zen-like response to those who opposed him. I remember when, as a teenager, I'd read that famous scene where Roark meets up with arch villain Ellsworth Toohey, in one of the most understated moments in the whole novel. One small part of my Brooklyn upbringing was telling me: "Oh boy, now Roark is gonna give it to that bastard. He's gonna tell Toohey to shove it. Maybe he'll just punch Toohey or spit in Toohey's face."
So Toohey confronts Roark: "Mr. Roark, we're alone here," Toohey says -- and I've committed this scene to memory -- "Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." And Roark's answer: "But I don't think of you."
He doesn't feel the necessity to debate Toohey, or to eviscerate him. He doesn't grant Toohey any metaphysical significance or co-equal status. He recognizes Toohey as a parasite upon the good, and simply wishes to step outside the role of host. He refuses to be either master or slave. A part of Roark's Zen-like response is always at work in the way I deal with negativity. When things turn ugly and people resort to personal attacks on various discussion forums, it does not help matters to resort to the same kinds of personal attacks in reply. I refuse to get into a pissing contest with my attackers. Those kinds of attacks say more about the attackers than they do about those who are attacked. Reproducing those dynamics in my own behavior only has the effect of diminishing my humanity. Through the years, I have come to the realization that many of those who choose to ridicule, to sling mud, to engage in ad hominem, are operating, essentially, on the basis of their own fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of difference. And it is, after all, fear that ultimately shapes and defines even the villainous Ellsworth Toohey. The Fountainhead provides us with a glimpse at Rand's insights into the corrosive nature of fear. I wrote about this theme in Fear and the Sith Sense. All of this made an impact on me; it clarified so much in my mind, and it helped me to deal with so much in my own life, from my own fears in facing a debilitating illness to the ways in which I've dealt with very rude personal attacks on my character, my integrity, and my intellectual honesty over this past decade. The irony is that some of these attacks are made by people who think they are behaving like veritable "Howard Roarks" by not granting me any "respect"; but in truth, they're just revealing their own fears, their inability and unwillingness to step outside the limitations of their own perspectives. Don't get me wrong: we all have these limitations. But when people can't -- or won't -- confront their own limitations, they fall victim to what Rand herself would have characterized as "thinking in a square".
SUNNI: That scene is an especially powerful, and effective one, Chris ... it's been a personal frustration for me that I've not been able to choose that path more often in my life thus far. Maybe your comments will help me improve on that ... Anyway, it's very much to your credit that you embrace and address substantive criticisms of your work. It can be hard to do, but is often a very rewarding way of improving one's thinking as well as writing. Two questions for you on this: How do you draw and re-draw the line between valid criticism and a crank's ranting; and why do you think so few pro-freedom individuals -- writers or otherwise -- seem able to deal with criticism in a constructive way?
CHRIS: Well, on that first question, I have to tell you that I used to be willing to let a discussion go on forever. I didn't distinguish between the legitimate questioners and the cranks. In fact, I'd sometimes bend over backwards for the cranks because I'd simply assumed that their initial hostility had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them, and that there might be a value in breaking through those kinds of defenses. And I've sometimes seen the Gandhi strategy, as I call it, work. That is: Anytime I encounter that level of initial verbal violence and hostility, I make an extra effort to be nonviolent, that is, to respond with civility. Sometimes, this has the effect of highlighting the other person's incivility. It has the effect of compelling that person to re-think his or her approach, or to stand out like a sore thumb in a discussion forum.
SUNNI: I know what you mean, and I've seen that work too sometimes.
CHRIS: I guess I've always operated also on what I call the "rose petal assumption." A friend of mine once observed that I was the kind of person who would find the one rose petal in a pile of manure. Instead of calling the whole thing crap, I'm busying myself searching for that rose petal, and sometimes getting pretty dirty in the process. But, the truth is, I do try to look for the good in people, even in my critics; I try to appeal to the best in everybody. Perhaps I would like to embody that Talmudic expression that Nathaniel Branden has often highlighted in his work: "A hero is one who knows how to make a friend out of an enemy."
This strategy, however, which is built into my very soul, as it were, does not always work. Some people are just constitutionally nasty and mean-spirited and it doesn't matter how many nonviolent responses one authors. It never makes a dent. I usually give such people three strikes. I mean, it is possible that in the rough and tumble of give-and-take on any particular discussion forum that a person might occasionally lose their temper in an exchange, perhaps once or twice. But beyond that, I've learned not to be somebody's punching bag. I've gotten better at drawing and re-drawing that "line between valid criticism and a crank's ranting," as you put it. Most of all, I've learned to stop tolerating rudeness. I am willing to engage anybody on any issue, but the moment my interlocutor treats me with ridicule or rudeness or disrespect, I stop the discussion and refuse to enable or sanction such behavior. I have also noticed that when people engage in rude and disrespectful exchanges, the topic of the discussion soon shifts from a debate over substance to a debate over style.
I know that in the cyber-universe and in the blogosphere, in particular, it's not just pro-freedom individuals who are loose canons in this regard. I've seen that same level of negativity, anger, fear, and hatred on display on left-wing forums as well. As for those in our own ideological home being unable to deal with criticism in a constructive way, I can only say that there is only one way to create a civil discussion: acting with civility. There is simply no substitute for actually practicing the very virtues one claims to celebrate.
SUNNI: Yep. It seems to me that some libertarians have taken what I think of as the "Frank Zappa approach" to conversation: since they're right -- at least on the importance of liberty -- they seem to think it gives them a license to act like an asshole.