Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Atlas Struck Out

      As a Christian, I often wonder about the popularity of Ayn Rand with people claiming to be conservative. Her best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged, regarded by some conservatives as a bible on capitalism and often quoted by members of the Tea Party, is notorious for popularizing a philosophy that insists selfishness is a virtue. Rand is not Christian (in fact, she attacks Christianity in her novel) and unapologetically atheist, proof that many “conservative” Randians don’t bother to seriously examine or perhaps even bother to read the novel which runs over a thousand pages.
      Fortunately for people who don’t like to read, the three part novel was turned into three movies by a Randian producer. (Part I was released in 2011, Part II in 2012, and Part III just recently on September 12, 2014.) Strangely, considering Randians espouse excellent achievement, the productions resemble a made-for-tv movie series for a second rate cable channel. If you don’t believe me, try to watch them. (Note: none of the principal actors in Parts I, II, and III remain the same which might confuse you.) The movies were a flop with critics and most audiences, but the hype and controversy surrounding their releases has helped fuel more sales of the novel, which has been selling well since its publication in 1957 and was voted the second most influential book in America after the Bible in 1991. 
      This disturbing fact begs the question—why is Rand regarded as an authority on business and capitalism? Apart from one unfortunate incident in her childhood of the Bolsheviks appropriating her father’s business, she has little to no practical experience in the area of business. I was blessed to be friends with Julian Moody, a veteran who fought and risked his life in World War II to defeat just the sort of tyranny that Rand, from a safe distance, pompously railed against. This kind, humble, selfless man was also an executive coach and management consultant for over fifty years and worked with many companies both large and small throughout the United States. He also volunteered countless hours as a mentor and coach for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses in Santa Barbara where he lived since 1965. I was fortunate to spend many hours talking with Julian who patiently answered my many questions about his work. His experience in business was completely contrary to what Rand professes in her work and philosophy. Central to business and trade are relationships and the quality of those relationships, and the things Rand glorified, like ego and selfishness, are extremely toxic and destructive to those relationships, often undermining the enterprises and endeavors in the long run. Most people with real experience in business have learned this truth the hard way. Great minds with great ideas without a team and network of supportive people to help make those ideas a reality are dead in the water. And selfish people with big egos, even when surrounded by yes-men, tend to create unnecessary conflict and draining drama more often than anything useful.
      But the plot of Atlas Shrugged turns all of that on its head and becomes the vehicle through which Rand demonstrates and expounds on her philosophy. The good guys are the selfish egoists who are always without fault and epitomize a philosophy which Rand calls “Objectivism.” These super people are brilliant and physically attractive with tasteful fashion sense who stride around with excellent posture and purpose, always on the move to be doing and producing. The bad guys are the low-life leeches, parasites, the incompetent, the do-nothings of society—essentially anyone who doesn’t or can’t embody her philosophy of “Objectivism”—and these she collectively refers to as “the looters.” These people are generally frumpy with various character or physical defects such as baldness or ugliness and they often slouch at their desks. Government ranks consist solely of this degenerate type. The selfish egoists are the strong who only want life and to be productive, so therefore are good. The looters are weak and can’t be great or strong, so out of resentment and envy, have to destroy the strong. The weak only want death so are bad. This “morality” (really just glorified Social Darwinism, which is never mentioned by name, but you can smell it all through the novel) forms the basis of what she calls “ethical egoism.” The strong are actually the ones who are oppressed since they have been saddled with the burden of helping the weak. All forms of altruism are actually false, evil systems that bind the strong, out of senseless guilt and obligation, to the weak. According to Rand, the strong have no obligation to help the weak and all religions (Christianity being the worst offender in her eyes) and systems claiming otherwise are evil delusions. So the casting off of this burden forms the premise of the plot—the good guys go on strike. (The Atlases of the world collectively shrug.) This strike is led by John Galt, the ideal superman, alpha-male embodiment of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy who has made good on his promise to stop the “motor of the world.” There is even a pirate, a Robin Hood in reverse, who steals from the weak (who have been stealing from the strong all along) to give back to the strong, who clearly always deserve to be rich. The strikers abandon the world causing chaos, death, and society to fall apart. Then in what is supposed to be a stunning climactic speech, John Galt reveals who he is, the philosophy he represents, and just what is this “motor of the world.” He reveals that it is the human mind, reason, ingenuity, ego—these are what make everything happen, everything possible. It is the selfish egoists and their productive ability who hold up the world with their greatness. These egoists are our true gods that we can’t live without, if we would only wake up out of our religious fog and realize it. To add a visual touch to his point, at the end of the story, John Galt traces in the air the sign of the dollar, in lieu of the sign of the cross, over the earth (which is now a wasteland.) Meanwhile, the strikers have been hiding out in a secret utopia commune of high achieving egoists called Atlantis—a modern-day version of the exalted mythical civilization that was named after the Greek god Atlas—where they are living happily and in blissful harmony with each other as they set about creating an ideal and better world. (Some of you are trying hard not to laugh, especially those of you who have witnessed the meltdown, tantrum, or pointless power trip of an egoist.)
      Some insist it is the sheer stupidity of her story and philosophy (often jokingly referred to as “Nietzsche for Dummies”) that accounts for the popularity of Atlas Shrugged which may be true, but I would argue that it is also the seductive mixture of truth and lies. That’s what makes her work so insidious—there’s just enough truth that a sloppy, undiscerning mind will swallow her whole philosophy hook, line, and sinker and believe it’s the whole truth. She takes truths we’ve all observed and paints them in the extremes of a two-dimensional plot and comic book caste system of good guys and bad guys, and then weaves in her twisted assertion that selfishness is the true good. We’ve all had accomplishments that were resented by others and likewise were envious of others’ success. Yes, talented, creative entrepreneurs with their ingenuity and hard work provide jobs and opportunities, and there are also lazy do-nothings and parasites who take advantage of handouts, government positions, and programs. And who hasn’t been manipulated with guilt by someone claiming to mean well? And she uses a trick known by any fiction writer with a knowledge of craft—identification with a character, especially a character we wish we were. Who doesn’t want to believe that they’re special, superior, a little god or rock star of their own little world, and that this world can’t exist without you? And all of the people who dislike you, criticize you, or find you annoying are just envious of how awesome you are? How wonderful to have a philosophy with a name like “Objectivism” that supports our most narcissistic view of ourselves. Incidentally, exaltation of self is one of the principle attributes of Satan, and it is also a characteristic of Satan to deceive and appear as an agent of light. Rand, through her characters, keeps insisting she is just advocating “reason” (she uses the word “reason” over and over again) and that to be selfish and to be concerned only with selfish gain is the most logical and rational good. She calls this “philosophy” and she embellishes it with a smokescreen and whitewash of terms like “hero in your soul,” “rational self-interest,” “pursuit of happiness,” “the principles that this country was founded on,” “individual rights,” “freedom,” along with her petulant whining, “I’m not against charity. I’m just against giving to anyone who hasn’t earned anything.” And if you don’t agree with her philosophy, then you just don’t want to understand how things really are. The only true morality is her brand of morality since it smacks of something backed by science (survival of the fittest), an uncomfortable truth you’re too afraid to accept. Combine that with her atheism—there is no God, so we may as well exalt ourselves and everything we create through our efforts—making for a nice, heady, satanic cocktail.
      If you’re of a secular orientation and want to get drunk on this poison and insist it’s a gospel on capitalism, that’s your problem, but those conservatives calling themselves Christians should know better. A Christian, at the very least, should recognize that this book and her philosophy is idolatry in its sickest form—the worship of self and human effort. She takes good things that our culture rightfully respects, and in her perverse reasoning, elevates them above the living God. Things such as: the entrepreneurial spirit, initiative, creativity, reason, imagination, risk, hard work, free enterprise, etc. And if we can’t manage to exemplify these attributes and be the super-achieving humans—the little gods of our society—then the captains of enterprise become the golden calves that we are supposed to worship (which she euphemistically refers to as “hero worship”) whose authority we can never question because they’re the ones giving us jobs and signing our paychecks. According to Rand, because of their inherent superiority and our dependence on them, they should be given complete license to do whatever they want.
      But the philosopher who in 1957 declared herself to be “the most creative thinker alive” doesn’t have the humility to see that the capacity for corruption exists in every one of us. In her hubris and overeagerness to identify with the super people in her novel—which is her Achilles heel—she becomes blind to the unfortunate fact that humans have historically shown time and time again that they can’t handle power, hence the old adage, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In her childish view, only the likes of government and religion abuse power. Naively, she fails to realize a corporation or business elite could lose sight of integrity and accountability and become just as tyrannical and corrupt as the socialist government that confiscated her father’s business, or that sociopathy can exist in the sheep’s clothing of free enterprise (think Enron.) So sadly, her novel becomes more of the same. In spite of descriptions of beautiful characters living in wealth and elegance, there is a cold, repellent emptiness, and by far, the most strange, remarkable thing about the novel, for an author who claims to love individuality and freedom, is that all of the great, brilliant characters sound the same, like clones spouting propaganda. You read page after page thinking, there’s so many words and pages, why does all of this sound and feel the same? The story could have been easily covered in less than half the number of pages, but there is one tireless talking head after another (the John Galt speech runs about 70 pages to give you an idea) covering essentially the same territory over and over again, as if by the brute force of repetition, like a fist pounding a podium, the sheer mass of words will make her philosophy deeper and more intelligent than it really is. In her verbiage, she tosses around words and expressions like “freedom,” “freedom to think,” and “free minds,” but there is no real sense of freedom in her work. All you become aware of is the autocratic tone that’s just as dreary, humorless, and oppressive as the communist country she escaped, as well as the absence of any real love or joy. Instead, there is just, in her words, the “arrogant pleasure” of narcissists achieving and admiring each other.
      As Whittaker Chambers sagely observed in his 1957 review of the book titled, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” in the conservative National Review, Rand has too much in common with the communists and socialists she condemns—her primitive, atheistic materialism is eerily like Marx’s—in other words, the same ugly creature in a different costume and waving a different flag. Chambers also noted in his review the unfortunate tendency of materialistic philosophies (no matter how stupid and awful), in his words, to “keep coming down to earth,” and if they seem to provide answers, to “translate quickly into political realities.” In the present political climate, conservative skepticism and disdain of leftist government, in some circles, becomes a rabid, knee-jerk hatred of ANY government and a blind, naive faith in anything pretending to be noble free enterprise.
      Rand argues over and over that it is the ingenuity of man in the form of unbridled and unrestricted capitalism that creates prosperity, but if those capitalists are as stupidly arrogant as she is, often that wealth will be the cheap, second-rate type of prosperity with a nasty set of terms in the fine print. As Julian, my dear friend and life-long management consultant observed, “We create messes in trying to be little gods.” Twelve years of my childhood were spent in Erie, Pennsylvania, a small city on the shores of Lake Erie, about 120 miles north of Pittsburg where industrialists of the type Rand would admire reigned during the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. During this period, this region became a hub of heavy industry and manufacturing, and Lake Erie became the most notoriously polluted of the Great Lakes. A combination of industrial effluent, sewage, and agricultural runoff (and its resultant algal blooms) choked the life out of the lake, helping to destroy a once thriving fishing industry. Lake Erie was famously declared dead by the 1970’s and became the subject of many jokes during that time. Only after decades has it been able to eek out a modest comeback, but still struggles with algal blooms as evidenced by the recent Toledo water ban. The history of Lake Erie is unfortunately reminiscent of the rampant pollution of early industrial England and this scenario is tragically being repeated today in China.
      Rand insists that if we would just give up our faith in God and religions like Christianity and put our faith in her type of capitalist and believe in the sign of the dollar instead of the sign of the cross, our lives would be so awesome. But we’ve already experimented with that. National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. (who also despised Rand as much as Chambers) in Rand’s obituary declared her philosophy “stillborn,” (and the end fruit of her philosophy has shown that it is a stillborn delivery of death) which brings us back to the bizarre and embarrassing fact of her popularity with many conservatives. This is unfortunately sad proof that few are actually reading or examining her work or perhaps, I hate to say it, sad proof that they aren’t even reading or studying the Bible. To what extent this pathetic and troubling ignorance will continue to run its course, I can only guess. Rand fanatics were hoping the movie adaptation would majestically convince a wider audience of the truth of her philosophy, but the production just makes us painfully aware that it is just “Nietzsche for Dummies.” You can hide stupidity in a novel of over a thousand pages, but unfortunately it becomes too apparent in a stripped down movie script. The three movies certainly struck out with me. As well as the miserable mental marathon of reading her novel just to try to give these misguided conservatives the benefit of the doubt.
      Over and over again, I kept going back to the premise of the story—the strike of these great people we supposedly can’t live without. I kept wondering, what if all of these self-congratulating, arrogant, self-consumed movers and shakers of the world with all of their insufferable pride and twisted morality went on strike? Maybe, just maybe, we would have some semblance of an Eden or Paradise on earth. Scripture says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” and in Christ’s words, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” Watching the movies and reading Rand’s novel also just made me relieved to know that on our money it reads, “In God We Trust.”

Friday, May 30, 2014

Happiness and Work

      Most of us spend more waking time at work than we do in any other place. And our place of work presumably becomes the main playing ground in which we exercise the pursuit of happiness, an unalienable right written in the Declaration of Independence. But are we truly motivated by the pursuit of happiness, especially in the context of work? Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss happiness in the workplace in the topic: "Happy People – What We Can Learn from Them." This topic is part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Constructive Capitalism and Dr. Bronner

Dr. Emanuel Bronner 1908 - 1997
      I can't remember the first place where I came across Dr. Bronner's liquid soap (you know, the one with the peculiarly verbose label with references to Spaceship Earth, Halley's Comet and All One God Faith!) - it was many years ago - but I do remember my reaction. I thought, "Wow, this guy is a wacko," but I bought the soap anyways. I figured if he was honest enough to rant like a lunatic on his label, then his soap must be honest and pure as stated in the simple ingredients list. Sure enough, the soap was very good.

      Dr. Bronner was a third generation soap maker descended from Orthodox Jewish soap manufacturers in Germany. The first part of his life was marked by tragedy - his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and later, he was committed to an insane asylum where he endured barbaric electroshock treatments for his bizarre (but at least peaceful) views. He managed to escape from the institution to California where he founded his soap company in 1948. Fortunately, his latter days were marked by blessing. He reconciled with his abandoned children (so committed was he to his cause of uniting Spaceship Earth, they spent much of their childhood in foster homes) who in turn helped run the company. In spite of a sadly complicated and imperfect past, Dr. Bronner, in his geriatric years, enjoyed helming a successful family enterprise as well as an Eden-like existence of nude sunbathing and eating fresh guacamole, his favorite health food, on a regular basis.

      His soap continues in the same excellent tradition despite Dr. Bronner having passed away in 1997. The company is run by his relatives who hold to the same purity standards espoused by Dr. Bronner and have taken them to another level. The company's product is completely organic and fair trade certified, and they're especially proud of an organic, fair trade olive oil project in the Holy Land. The company has always donated a percentage of their net profits to charity. In recent years, the percentage donated has increased to over 70% of net profits. The relatives have also capped their salaries so that they are never grotesquely out of proportion to the lowest paid employees in the company. And they give generous bonuses to all of their employees, not just the top management. (As anyone knows, this is so unfortunately not true in many American companies and corporations where a sense of entitlement prevails in upper management to the long-term detriment of the companys' morale and financial health.)

Dr. Bronner's line of soaps
      More and more business people are considering the sustainable and socially responsible business model just as more and more people have jumped on the organic and fair trade bandwagon. Some claim that a business that creates an excellent product, reimburses all workers fairly, is socially and environmentally responsible, gives generously, and is also economically viable all at the same time is not possible. Dr. Bronner's company is a practical example of how this "constructive capitalism" is in fact very possible.

      Many people are unaware that it was Dr. Bronner who first conceived and used the term "constructive capitalism." Increasingly, financial and economic pundits are trying to take credit for the term. Dr. Bronner was truly a pioneer, well ahead of his time, and his work has helped pave the way for contemporary offshoots such as "conscious capitalism" (the Whole Foods business model.) While generosity is nothing new in American capitalism - industrialists Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their twilight years, were big givers from their, some argue, ill-gotten wealth - Dr. Bronner's business was one of the first to marry the concept of social responsibility with profit in a very practical way.

      I have been a consumer of Dr. Bronner's soap for years - it's great for everything, including stinky, dander-infested pets. (Caution must be exercised in using the peppermint soap on private areas since the high quality peppermint has a surprising "zing" to it.) Over time, the kooky labels with excessive exclamation points have become more and more endearing, like the rantings of a favorite, eccentric, old fart relative. Apparently, Dr. Bronner's family feels likewise. Even though a number of Dr. Bronner's relatives are born-again Christians and don't quite agree with everything on the labels (e.g. the Halley's Comet connection to the Messiah), they have left them unchanged out of respect for their founding patriarch. The family states on each label, "No one agrees with everything on the label, but everyone finds something which inspires and touches them." So true. The labels contain a random assortment of original quotes by Dr. Bronner from his "moral ABC" and quotes by famous people. Here is a sampling:

"To love, to live!
to see to it that I give and grow
and give and give!"
Dr. Bronner

"God must have loved the common people of the earth...he made so many of them."
Abraham Lincoln

"Our technology has outstripped our humanity!"
Albert Einstein

"We're ALL-ONE or NONE!"
Dr. Bronner

      And did I mention that Dr. Bronner was blind? His ever diminishing eyesight, which he attributed to the early electroshock treatments, eclipsed into total blindness by his old age, but he had more vision and foresight than most people with perfect eyesight. And perhaps his most radical, daring, and for many people, annoying practice - he brings up the subject of God in a place where no one else would dare to for fear of losing customers: the marketplace. His soap labels are peppered with references to God. You may find his theology to be strange or flawed, but you have to at least admire his brazenness for giving homage to God in a place where the term "God" is practically a dirty word. On something as ordinary and mundane as a soap bottle sitting on a store shelf, of all places. The nerve of that Dr. Bronner!

(Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I touch on the subject of God in the topic "God" which is part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Problem? of Emotions

      The master actor and storyteller Charlie Chaplin once observed: the mark of an idiot is all feeling and no intellect, and the mark of an arch-criminal (or sociopath) is all intellect and no feeling.
      The two extremes - all feeling or no feeling - present problems, no one can argue. Some balance of emotions is needed along with emotions themselves - life (and for that matter storytelling) would fall flat without them. So why are emotions so often judged and feared? And have we become increasingly numbed and deadened to feeling? Some argue that one of the reasons actors, storytellers, and especially moviemakers are so highly paid and respected in our society today (people in the dramatic arts used to be considered low-lifes) is because of their skill in conveying and creating emotional response. The argument essentially goes - we have become so deadened and deprived of emotional expression in the grind, rat race, and busyness of modern times, that the only time we feel alive is when we watch movies. Whether you agree with this or not, it's certainly something to think about.
      So are emotions (or a lack of emotions) a problem in modern times?

(Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss the issue of emotions in the business world in the topics: "The Mystery of the Automobile Company Widget" and "The Engineer Who Claimed, 'There is no such thing as emotions'." These topics are part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Symptoms Versus Causes

      The word heal in English comes from an old Saxon word which means "to make whole." The words wholesome and holistic come from the same root, and the definition of holistic describes nature as a unity, made up of wholes which are more than a mere sum of its disparate parts. (Interestingly, the English word holy comes from the same base that is seen in heal and health - 'hail', 'halig', and 'hali' which means "whole, entire, unimpaired" and in a religious context, "unsullied.")
      Terms such as whole and holistic are in vogue now, maybe in response to one of the most unfortunate ironies of our times - in spite of all of our progress, a lack of wholeness predominates. Dysfunction, disease, and ailments continue to hold sway and cancer is epidemic. Modern medicine is impressive in its advancements but often criticized for its lack of understanding of whole systems especially in the area of preventive health care. And the main emphasis seems to be on the elimination of symptoms rather than the healing of root causes. Symptoms are treated as problems in and of themselves - pharmaceutical drugs are readily prescribed and purchased, and often the connection of symptoms to causes is not thoroughly examined or even made.
      In spite of all of our accumulation of knowledge in the information age and our so-called advancements, we remain blind or seem to become more blind to the whole truth of how things are caused or connected. In the industrial age, specialization and compartmentalization is the norm, and the ability and desire to see the whole picture, regard things holistically, is considered kooky.

(This blindness is also prevalent in the mundane day-to-day operations of the business world. Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss this in the topic "Symptoms Versus Causes" which is part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Are We Truly Productive?

     "Beware the barrenness of a busy life," quipped Socrates over 2,400 years ago, but sadly, barren busyness seems to be the norm of our times. In our industrial, technological age, we idolize productivity and we're in a constant state of doing and busyness, but are we truly productive? Or are we living wasteful, reactive lives full of unquestioned habit and routine (an observation of many old people when they reflect on their lives)? Business people are especially lauded for being practical and productive, but are they any better? Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody personally worked with hundreds of managers, top executives, and presidents over a course of fifty years. In his long career, he found otherwise. Julian and I discuss this in the topic "No Concept of Priorities" which is part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

What is the Essence of Leadership?

      Upward mobility, the American Dream, and ambition in the form of seeking the highest title and position are taken for granted in our culture. Given this, the meaning of leadership has become muddled, tainted, and confused. A common assumption is that leadership is something that one strives for and achieves, but is leadership about advancement and a position? Is it about various agendas for promotion? Or is it something altogether different? And what distinguishes a great leader from a good leader?
      Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody personally worked with hundreds of managers, top executives, and presidents. Julian and I discuss leadership in the topic "What is the Essence of Leadership?" as part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.