Monday, January 5, 2009

An Interview with Gus Van Horn

It is with great pleasure that Live Oaks presents an interview with Gus Van Horn. Gus is an award winning blogger and also the author of an article and book review in the latest issue of The Objective Standard.

LO: Why did you start a blog? What was your goal?

GVH: I started a blog for many reasons, the most important ones being that after grad school, I began to notice that I missed both my activities with the Rice Objectivist Club (as it was called then) and writing opinion pieces for the Rice Thresher. I was also performing a stretch of experiments that involved numerous short waiting periods that were conducive to checking the Internet for news, and little else. So I began thinking about writing columns again, but quickly realized that I had no print outlet, and that the bar for publication in a real newspaper would be much higher than it had been for the student paper. I wanted to write columns again, but saw no good way to get started.

Around that time, I went to the Ginger Man with a friend from Rice who writes science fiction for a hobby, and, over a pint, he suggested I consider blogging as a way to at least get to write. He said something like, "Some bloggers have even been discovered by Fox News." I didn't see that happening, but the fact that I could put my writing out there, be heard by somebody, and get some kind of feedback as I practiced sounded very good to me. It was a couple of weeks after my birthday, so a few days later, I gave myself the blog as a belated birthday gift.

Incidentally, the pen name arises from an in-joke I had going with a small circle of friends a few years before. The friend who suggested I try blogging, Raymund Eich, was part of that circle, and has been in on the running joke from the get-go!

LO: Do you have any suggestions for someone who is considering starting a blog?

GVH: I have three general suggestions.

First, be open to the possibility that your goals as a blogger might change quite a bit from what you originally had in mind. I say this because blogging occupies a position somewhere between thinking out loud (or even “chewing” difficult concepts) and more formal writing. The lack of editorial input will permit you to explore more topics than if you stopped and polished up a single piece, if you decide to post daily, as I do, or more frequently. This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be easy to become unfocused. On the other, you have the freedom to explore lots of intellectual terrain.

Second, establish a routine and stick to it. Many bloggers just toss something out into the either when they feel like it, and then are silent for weeks or months on end. If you see blogging as more of an exercise in keeping a personal journal, that’s fine, but don’t complain if you never build an audience. But if you want to be heard, or if you want to practice thinking, you will shortchange yourself and your readers by not writing on a regular basis. Like any other activity, practice makes perfect, and regularity makes it easier to incorporate that practice into the already-existing rhythms of one’s daily life.

Third, seek out the advice of more experienced bloggers. At the risk of sounding pompous by recommending my own advice, I refer you to my own posting, “Blogging as Intellectual Activism”, which I wrote some time back. That was rather well-received, even by non-Objectivists, a couple of whom sent their own readers.

LO: Gus Van Horn seems like a combination of journalism and intellectual activism. How do you remain objective while promoting a particular philosophical position?

GVH: I think it really boils down to two things: (1) Being certain that I am right, which means understanding for myself how Ayn Rand's positions and arguments conform (or apply) to the facts of reality; and (2) Keeping my audience in mind, which means never, ever, insulting their intelligence by appealing to authority rather than making a principled, factual argument. Ayn Rand treated me with that respect, and I follow her example as well as I can.

LO: With the Internet, there are a seemingly infinite number of issues and stories to write about. How do you choose your topics?

GVH: That’s a challenging question. Broadly, I usually enjoy considering how philosophical ideas affect the culture through public opinion and the psychology and personal choices of large numbers of people, especially when the effect is not necessarily straightforward. (For example, current fashion among educators is to praise children for being “smart”, which denigrates hard work and, seemingly paradoxically, hinders the development of genuine self-esteem.)

I also tend not to want to write about the same thing over and over, so I am always keeping an eye out for new material when I hunt for it, usually in the morning before I write. It’s hard to articulate exactly what I do, because the process is almost automatic. I scan headlines, something piques my interest, and if I see something unusual or new in the story, I write it up.

If I am lucky, something will just hit me, like Bush’s recent silly utterance that he “abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system”. As soon as I saw that on The Drudge Report one evening, I knew I had a post the next day without even having to read the article. But sometimes, the search for something “blogworthy” can consume most of the time I have to blog.

LO: Have you learned anything through blogging that has really surprised you?

GVH: Yes. As I said, before one can write an opinion piece of any kind, one must understand what he is going to say. This means that I have had to examine my own positions closely many times over the years and, as a result, my thinking on some issues has gradually evolved over time.

For example, I supported the reelection of George Bush on the premise that his course of action regarding the War We Should Have Won Already was better than the alternative offered by John Kerry. Fairly shortly after the election, however, I recanted. The alternate position put forth by other Objectivists, that Bush's half-battle was even worse, finally "clicked" for me some time after I'd read several other Objectivist bloggers and intellectuals, and digested their arguments.

I have long regarded myself as someone who understands Objectivism pretty well, and yet I had to admit that I'd misapplied it to that question! Such things deepen my respect for Ayn Rand, and cause me to appreciate her subtlety as a thinker.

LO: You seem to have a sizable audience, which I have to assume includes many non-Objectivists. What kind of challenges do you face writing for an audience that may not be familiar with Objectivism?

GVH: My biggest challenge is usually figuring out whether I am doing an adequate job of explaining my principles. This is because it is challenging to explain abstract principles to begin with, while at the same time, the prevalence of pragmatism in our culture makes many people unable to understand or appreciate the importance of philosophical principles. The latter makes my job harder to do, and my performance harder to evaluate.

Am I having to explain the same thing to this commenter again because I didn't explain it well the first time, or because he just doesn't get principles? Did that A-list blogger not send readers my way because I didn't make my point well enough, or because he didn't/can't/will never get it? Or for some other reason?

When I am dealing with someone who can follow a principled argument, like my wife (who is intelligent, but is neither philosophically inclined nor an Objectivist), I usually seem able to get my point across reasonably well, so I have over the years come to see pragmatism as perhaps the single biggest obstacle to a more widespread acceptance of Objectivism.

Another challenge is the fact that many issues are not clear-cut. Lots of pro-capitalist people favor "privatization", for example. But if you look at what governments actually do most of the time when they privatize, you will see that it is a privatization in name only, with the "owner" having very little freedom to dispose of his own property. Or, to take a related example, consider the fact that school vouchers, if they ever were a first step towards getting the state out of education, are now just a slick way to give government funding to religious schools. Thanks to the Republicans, who support such measures, many people have serious misconceptions about what capitalism is. So just saying that "I am a capitalist," ends up requiring further elaboration.

Of course, the flip side to all this is that such issues give me more to write about!

One thing I have had little trouble from has been that I have caught essentially zero flak simply for openly espousing Objectivism. You can chalk that up as another big surprise blogging has given me.

LO: That surprises me as well, given that there is a lot of antagonism towards principles in general, and Objectivism in particular, in the culture. To what do you attribute the lack of flak?

GVH: It is probably about equal parts relative obscurity and a growing acceptance of Objectivism as a serious school of thought with worthwhile things to say. On the first score, I have a good following for a blog, but it is still tiny compared to that of Fox News, or even certain A-list bloggers, such as Glenn Reynolds or Andrew Sullivan.

On the second score, the efforts of the Ayn Rand Institute, the Anthem Foundation, academic Objectivists such as Tara Smith, and grassroots intellectual activists, such as that of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Medicine are beginning to pay off. Even people who might be likely to pooh-pooh Objectivists as being “doctrinaire” have to take notice when the people making the best case for freedom always seem to be Objectivists.

We have a unique, much-needed, and truly alternative perspective to the religious and nihilistic viewpoints (and the mindless non-viewpoint of pragmatism) that have turned our intellectual mainstream into a sewer. We will always have our opponents, as any intellectual movement will, given the fact that man has free will. But they and those who sit on the fence are increasingly realizing that they ignore us at the peril of their own credibility.

LO: Thank you for your time and insightful answers. On a more personal note, I greatly appreciate the support you have given Live Oaks and the many helpful tips you have shared with me.


Anonymous said...

Great interview. And it's good to know there are other Rice folks on my side of the philosophical spectrum.

Martin Lindeskog said...

Great interview!

Gus: Keep up your great work!

Best Premises,

Martin Lindeskog - American in spirit.
Gothenburg, Sweden.

Brian Phillips said...

It was a lot of fun to interview Gus. I'm glad others are enjoying it as well.

Anonymous said...

Interesting interview. It's great that young people are being given an alternative to mainstream non morality.