Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ayn Rand and the Politics of Egomania


Ack ~ was there ever a more overrated writer than Ayn Rand? When I read her stilted books in college, it never occurred to me that 30 years later there would be people running for office who used her fiction as some kind of political philosophy. She basically makes my eyes glaze over, and since I can think of dozens of better writers who made political points with much more eloquence. Rand's plots are depressing, and her characters are cold, calculating, cynical, negative and selfish.

Of course that might explain the appeal to the Nay-Saying Right, including Paul Ryan, even though he claims to have rejected Randian ideas. But one look at his slash and burn budget makes me think he is just backpeddling for political expediency, and still is firmly in the land of Rand.

Ryan is supposedly a Catholic, and most right-wingers are also Christians, but believing in the Bible and Ayn Rand's philosophy at the same time creates cognitive dissonance. If you accept the teachings of Jesus to reject earthly things such as money, to love your fellow human beings and help the poor, then it's hard to justify an ego-based world-view, unless you are Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, or Rupert Murdoch:

“A man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”
― Ayn Rand

“And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory.
The sacred word:
― Ayn Rand, Anthem

“My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”
― Ayn Rand, Anthem

Jesus threw the money-changers out of the Temple, and urged his followers to give away their possessions. Ayn Rand is having none of that - money is the highest good because it makes us happy, and the search for money innately honorable because it feeds the "creative"ego. In fact, anyone who doesn't worship money is a loser - Mitt Romney would understand this!

“Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper's bell of an approaching looter.”
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns--or dollars. Take your choice--there is no other.”
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

“Economic power is exercised by means of a positive, by offering men a reward, an incentive, a payment, a value; political power is exercised by means of a negative, by the threat of punishment, injury, imprisonment, destruction. The businessman's tool is values; the bureaucrat's tool is fear.”
― Ayn Rand

“Let me give you a tip on a clue to men's characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it.”
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

“Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think.”
― Ayn Rand

Money is the "root of all good"? That works for people like Donald Trump, but I wouldn't say he has more "capacity to think" than Barack Obama. Money being equal to "values" is right out of the Ronald Reagan playbook.

What about Jesus's view of taxes ~ "render unto Caesar those things which are Caesar's, and unto God those things which are God's." What about Jesus being a martyr after his arrest, dying on the cross to save our sins? Nope. For Ayn Rand, the individual comes before the government, and there's just no point in this silly self-sacrifice for others. The Star Trek idea expressed by Mr. Spock that the "needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few" would be blasphemy to Ayn Rand. It's all about Me Me Me Me Me.

“A government is the most dangerous threat to man's rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.”
― Ayn Rand

“My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”
― Ayn Rand, Anthem

“Self-sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.”
― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”
― Ayn Rand

“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life.”
― Ayn Rand

What about the poor and the sickly, to whom Jesus ministered and said would always be with us? What about the "poor in spirit" whom he said are blessed in the Sermon on the Mount? Well, "those people" just aren't trying very hard, according to Ayn Rand. They need to "imagine greater" and earn their own rewards - like a commercial for a credit card company. This gets to the heart of Ryan's budget plan, which insists that being poor is a choice, and that even people in dire trouble have no right to ask the government for help because they haven't "earned" it. This is what the "welfare-to-work" controversy is all about - "those people" have to get out there an earn, even if they don't have a car, even if they have to leave their children home alone, or work three jobs around the clock. They have to "earn their reward. It's also why the far right hates Obama's healthcare plan, and say they want to do away with Medicare, something close to Paul Ryan's heart.

“We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.
We are on strike against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one's happiness is evil. We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt.”
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

For Rand, the root of all evil is actually "Altruism," defined in The Fountainhead as living for others. That's taboo because it doesn't glorify the ego. People who are not creative thinkers or producers are "secondary" or "parasites."

If this sounds familiar, just think back to the Republican Primary when Obama was being called the "Foodstamp President." Reagan's villifying of "welfare mothers" is a good example of the "parasite" view of society. Randians hate the term "community organizer" because that implies that communities are good things, or that people might want to help each other get organized. It's wrong to help others because it takes time away from your navel-gazing creativity. In Rand's view, it's wrong to ask for help, and it's wrong to give help - both are equally abhorent. Better if you just ignore everyone and seek your own happiness because anyone less successful is a parasite anyway - don't waste your time!


Excerpt from Howard Roark's Speech in The Fountainhead 
“The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism.
“Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self.
“No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body. But the second-hander has used altruism as a weapon of expoloitation and reversed the base of mankind’s moral principles. Men have been taught every precept that destroys the creator. Men have been taught dependence as a virtue.
“The man who attemps to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality—the man who lives to serve others—is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.
“Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement.

Again, Jesus's tale of the Good Samaritan stopping along the road to help others becomes irrelevant. By Ayn Rand's definition, the Samaritan - and Jesus - were slaves to their idealogy. Mr. Spock's "The Needs of the Many" becomes "The Needs of the Creator." Those last few lines there are precisely what Republicans mean when they say that we are slamming Mitt Romney's achievments if we dare question his great wealth, or when Ann Romney points out that they have plenty enough to tithe to the church, therefore they are trustworthy. Wealth is an indicator of "goodness" to Ayn Rand. Clothes make the man (or woman). Appearances are not deceiving - they are reality. To me that is the old familiar Puritan Ethic, including the witch trials, but Rand rewrote it in her own image without the Biblical imperative of caring or sacrificing for others, or ever admitting you are wrong - which the Puritans did after years of witch-burning and persecuting Quakers.

So is it possible to be remotely religious or humanitarian and still be a Randian? No problem - the author tells us we can figure out such contradictions. Simply make up your own reality as you go along, and don't give a damn about what anyone else thinks. You can insist that you are a Christian but still be insulting, nasty, self-absorbed, spiteful, intolerant, and bloodthirsty. You know, like Ann Coulter's admonition to invade Middle Eastern countries, "kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

You can be a Christian and love assault rifles, or believe women are like cattle. You can hate African Americans, Mexican Americans, Hawaiian Americans, Chicago Americans - whatever - this is your show, so hate anyone you please. You can make up conspiracies and believe you are a victim, as when normally fierce and hawkish Sarah Palin labeled Katie Couric's simple question about reading material as an "attack by the lamestream media." The Birther movement is also in this category because they don't worry when shown the President's original long-form birth certificate. They merely make up another conspiracy theory to explain it and move on. The birth certificate was a forgery, or it was a conspiracy between Kenya and the Hawaiian newspapers. In the minds of Orly Taitz or Joe Arpaio or Donald Trump, Obama remains an Illegitimate Kenyan Muslim with Foreign European Socialist Ideas and He Wants to Start Martial Law and Take Away Our Guns. I Want My Country Back! Ayn Rand would understand, I think.

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

“Place nothing above the verdict of your own mind.”
― Ayn Rand

“But why should you care what people will say? All you have to do is please yourself.”
― Ayn Rand

“Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.”
― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Yes, stand by an idea, like Orly Taitz or Joe Arpaio as they beat the Birther drum. If you think something up, it has to be right. That's integrity. Be a polemicist like Ann Coulter or some of the "Young Guns" from the Tea Party in Congress - their way or the highway, no compromise ever, and no thought for the public good. You don't have to make sense to others, and if they diss your ideas then screw them. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been living by that creed for years. But then, so did Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Ladin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler, and Napoleon.

Make up your own system and stand by it - what can go wrong?

In an Essay called The Cartoon World of Ayn Rand, Professor Emeritus Donald Demarco of St. Jerome University in Ontario writes:
The striking disparity between her immense popularity and the dubious quality of her work provides an important insight into American society. The logical explanation appears to be that Ayn Rand appeals to people who are hesitant to grow up, preferring to cling to a cartoon version of life where the fictional heroes are people of uncompromised rectitude, and utopia is within everyone’s grasp. Listen to a few excerpts from the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, who goes on and on for no less than fifty-eight pages, delivering a monotonous and tedious paean to individualism:

The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.

In the hopeless swamps of the not quite, the not yet, and the not at all, do not let the hero in your soul perish and leave only frustration for the life you deserved but never have been able to reach.

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark.

Ayn Rand may have been better positioned as a Madison Avenue advertizing executive. She offers hope for the hopeless, but one that is a pure fabrication, cleverly packaged and delivered in purple prose. She has a genius for marketing, but not for logical persuasion.

You would think that since Rand believed that each person was creating their own reality, that she wouldn't judge others or look down on anyone, but that's not the case. In her characters, selfishness breeds self-righteousness. You have to be the "right sort" of egomaniac in order to get her seal of approval.

“There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable non-conformist. ”
― Ayn Rand

And there you have the problem with Ayn Rand as a philosopher. Not "I think, therefore I am," but "I am always right because I just am" and "I will judge who is worthy and who is not."

I don't really care if she is atheistic - the problem is that her ideas are immoral under any philosophy, and she is anti-society, period. How can someone run for office while making promises to real people, but be totally out for number one all the time? How can a politician see himself as a "creator" when he is getting a salary and benefits from the government, therefore being just as much of a "parasite" as the "secondary" citizens who are pariahs in Rand's view?

That's where she loses me.

I've seen several people on Twitter saying that Paul Ryan's interest in the author's works is a "myth" made up by the "lamestream media. I'm sure Ryan would like us to believe that, but Ryan is on the record talking about Rand's influence on his philosophy, leading him to where he is now:

From the New Yorker
His father’s death also provoked the kind of existential soul-searching that most kids don’t undertake until college. “I was, like, ‘What is the meaning?’ ” he said. “I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection. I read everything I could get my hands on.” Like many conservatives, he claims to have been profoundly affected by Ayn Rand. After reading “Atlas Shrugged,” he told me, “I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to check out this economics thing.’ What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” He dived into Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.

In a 2005 speech to a group of Rand devotees called the Atlas Society, Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns. “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” To me he was careful to point out that he rejects Rand’s atheism.

In 1988, Ryan went to Miami University, in Ohio, where he got to know an economics professor named William R. Hart, a fierce and outspoken libertarian in a faculty dominated by liberals. The two quickly discovered their shared fascination with Rand and Hayek. Ryan got his first introduction to movement conservatism when Hart handed him an issue of National Review. “Take this magazine—I think you’ll like it,” he said.

Of course, Ryan has denounced Rand because he has realized it's more politically expedient, and because the author was an atheist, which might not appeal to the Tea Party evangelicals.

From a National Review Article called "Ryan Shrugged"
“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

Anyone can change their mind about a writer, but I'm not sure Ryan is being honest when he says he rejects Rand's philosophy. His budget, for example, is just the sort of selfish and draconian document that one of Rand's characters might invent to save society. Personally I don't want to live in a society like that. And it worries me that Ryan singles out Thomas Aquinas who wrote a few strange things of his own.
"As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active power."
EEK!  That quote certainly  fits with Ryan's "Personhood of the Male Seed at Conception" bill, but it still seems quite Randian as well - women as defective parasites living off male power. If that's the best Paul Ryan has to offer in terms of an alternate philosophy to Ayn Rand, then he needs a new library card.

1 comment:

  1. i dont think you understand the Fountainhead at all, thats not even the right book cover...

    You also didn't mention objectivism, the actual "randian" philosophy, this philosophy does say, live for yourself, but it also stresses that one should not hurt others in this process. Rand would be disgusted with the conservatives of today. The men you mentioned, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have done nothing but go against this ideal, doing anything to further themselves. While some of Ryan's policies match up with Rand's ideals, i think he understands the text less than you do. You have to understand that many people in America do take advantage of Welfare, while some might actually need it, most sit on their asses getting more money than they could if they had a job, BECAUSE WE ENCOURAGE IT.

    Furthermore, objectivism does NOT say you can't donate, work for a shelter, volunteer, etc. if it really makes you happy, and you have taken care of yourself first, there is nothing wrong with helping the unfortunate. The people Rand attacks are those that do these things for the purpose of impressing others, these people volunteer not because it makes them happy, but because they want something to brag about, and that is absolutely disgusting. Altruism for the sake of altruism is useless.

    Ayn Rand, is liberal in several ways too, you honestly think she'd let the government decide social issues? The government, in her view, should have NO say in a woman's decision for abortion or a man/woman's choice in marriage. A government should be there to protect its people, not to take and give as it sees fit.

    And yes, parasites and second handers are a bane to society, they prevent the human race from moving forward. Though I suppose without them, no one could appreciate the true art creators bring. this ideal of a society where everyone lives up to Rand's philosophy couldn't happen simply because it is human nature to control others, which, again, goes against Rand's ideals.

    You should also understand that Roark is the perfect individual, something all should strive for. Why shouldn't you live for yourself? why are't you the most important person in your life? it is your life after all, shouldn't it hold percipient? Read the book again, but don't read it with such a limited liberal view.