Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rand at Christmastime

(News-Herald, December 16) Ayn Rand has been experiencing a sort of revival in popularity which, given the current currents in politics and culture, is not surprising. In all the twentieth century, there may be no other writer who so clearly distilled the demand that the whiners shut up, the sob stories dry up, and the strong individuals stand up.
Some of her observations can seem pretty pointed these days. For instance, her view of charity was that a society that values charity will end up rewarding people for being the most compelling and sad failures, rather than rewarding folks for success. Anyone who ever railed against the welfare state knows exactly what she was talking about.
There is appeal in Rand’s view of the world. Her philosophy of Objectivism was based in the belief that there is one absolute truth, one set and unchanging world, and that reason was the only way to perceive it.
In her breadbox-sized masterwork Atlas Shrugged she wrote, “There are two sides to every issue. One side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil." When an interviewer for Playboy asked her, “Isn't this a rather black-and-white set of values?” she replied, “It most certainly is.”
In Rand’s world there is only good and evil, and no excuse for choosing anything but the good.
For Rand, the worst evils were committed in the name of collectivism, the notion that the needs of the many can ever outweigh the needs of the few. Government was at its worst when demanding sacrifice, forcibly taking money and resources away from those who had rightfully earned them. For Rand, there was no greater good than the individual’s pursuit of his own self-interest. Rand didn’t consider selfishness okay—she considered it the only way to live a rational and moral life.
Her world, as laid out in Atlas Shrugged, is one in which great and brilliant men build and create, while the small, weak, puny scavengers that make up the rest of the population live off the sweat of the great few.
It is hard not to see some of Rand’s philosophy as a reflection of her experience. She lived through the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, and that’s enough to make anyone leery of governments that ask for a few pints of blood so as to help the greater good.
She liked capitalism and reason, and she was adept at creating quotes in their honor. “Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” And “The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.”
Libertarians might like “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” But Rand didn’t like Libertarians. And while some people of faith might find Rand’s absolutes appealing, Rand was an unwavering atheist who saw religion as one more attempt to rob individuals of their free will.
By the 1960’s she was noted for a variety of controversial positions. She supported abortion rights, opposed the draft (but also opposed draft dodgers), backed Barry Goldwater for President, said that European conquest of Native Americans was just. In 1964, she wrote the essay “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
One oft-repeated quote is “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” It sounds appealing, but not even Rand could manage to live by it in her own messy personal life. Later in her life, Rand took Nathaniel Branden as a lover, with the consent of her own husband and his wife. She set him up in business as the keeper of an early think tank devoted to her own philosophy (by this time she considered herself on par with Aristotle). Dissent and disagreement with Rand were frowned on, and when her lover moved on to yet another extramarital entanglement, Rand closed the institute and denounced Branden; he apologized for perpetuating a cult.
None of this has entirely healed. Branden’s wife still has a website presenting her side of the story for all the internet to see. The Ayn Rand Institute’s biography simply omits the Brandens and their work.
Why bring up Rand now, in a season that celebrates everything that she considered evil and wrong? Perhaps for a change of pace. Or perhaps to ask the people who do celebrate this season and yet revere her ideas… why?

1 comment:

crackedmirrorinshalott said...

I like your final question. "WHY?"

I didn't have a problem with Rand until I actually read some of her work. Her glorification of Rape and her support for oppressing the disenfranchised made me feel appalled, and made me question the judgement of the people I knew who loved Rand or her objectivism.

From the point of view of the Anthropologist, Objectivism is not only seriously flawed, but also unethical. We observe different cultures through the lens we were raised with, and so it is the ethical duty of the (cultural) Anthropologist to be as aware of that as possible, and to judge a culture not by one's own mores but by the mores of that culture. You only see people squatting in mud huts or invoking strange gods a la Heart of Darkness or similar works (whatever the actual meaning of those works are) otherwise.

Add in the social justice lover in me, and I just can't condone Rand's Objectivism.

I think it's telling that Rand's work is on Jezebel's list of Holiday gifts for people you don't like.

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