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The Sinister Folly of Ayn Rand

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, the cult classic by the cult leader Ayn Rand. Like her other works of fiction and nonfiction, the book manages to be both deeply sinister and deeply ridiculous, which isn't so easy to do.

Terry Teachout has a piece on her in National Review this week. He's too good a writer not to notice how bad a writer she is, but he mostly misses the sinister part. Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist who broke the Alger Hiss case and became a conservative, was much smarter about Rand way back in 1957, when he wrote some very perceptive comments about Atlas Shrugged for the National Review. Chambers got to the heart of Rand's peculiar brand of free-market totalitarianism. Indeed, Chambers' piece marked the decisive moment at which the nascent right-wing parted ways with Rand's worship of individual will.

In a way it's hard to see why Rand made people like William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk uncomfortable. Buckley, a high-functioning sociopath, has always defined political liberty as identical with the maintenance of his own personal, family, class, and religious privileges; all his life, this heir to an oil fortune has been in the enviable position of proclaiming that whatever is good for him is also morally right. This is Rand's "philosophy" in a nutshell. Actually, it doesn't take much more than a nutshell to hold her philosophy, or Buckley's.

Maybe Buckley and his friends disliked the cult-like nature of Rand's salon, the slavishness with which people like Leonard Peikoff, the executor of Rand's literary estate, dedicated themselves to her ideas. Maybe they were squeamish about her godlessness, her refusal to play by their sexual rules - as when she and her young devotee Nathaniel Branden informed their respective spouses that Rand and Branden were henceforth going to be lovers, as an aspect of Branden's intellectual apprenticeship.

Whether modern libertarians and conservatives choose to acknowledge Rand or not, she has greatly influenced the most romantic and shallow type of libertarianism, and has - through her novels and the work of the Ayn Rand Institute - served as its foremost recruiter in our nation's high schools. In her insistence that she owed nothing to the state, nothing to any human being other than herself, Rand epitomized the kind of childishness shown by libertarians who insist that they have every legal and moral right to own as many guns as they please, pay no taxes, educate their children at home, and live free of any law except those governing, in the most direct manner, their own security and that of their neighbors. A watered-down form of this nonsense today exists in the platform of presidential candidate Ron Paul, and in the political agendae of people like the late Helen Chenoweth, the congresswoman who befriended the "militia movement" and spoke grimly of government black helicopters. Opportunists like Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan capture it, with dreary predictability, every election cycle, when they present government as the enemy.

I'm not sure why, as a society, we're still discussing Ayn Rand, but apparently we are. Amazon says Atlas is its 313th best selling book; it has 1,443 reader reviews, with an average rating of 4 out of 5 stars. There's even a web site, theatlasphere.com, that specializes in social and dating connections for fans of Rand. So, with some sense of foreboding, I'd like to take up why Rand is so much worse than mere demagogues like Paul and Chenoweth, Gingrich and Reagan.

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It's a little ironic that Rand (born Alisa Zinovevna Rosenbaum - she fled the Soviet Union in 1926), who prided herself on being a strict rationalist and who expected that objective science could only confirm her theories about humanity, in fact knew so very little about science. Along with many others, she seems to assume that capitalism is not a cultural invention but a law of physics--I once heard Jack Kemp make the hilarious assertion that "Adam Smith discovered universal laws, laws that apply to all human beings in all places." Rand herself said that capitalism is the only economic system that is fully compatible with man's nature--but on the basis of what evidence? Did anyone ever challenge her on how she came to that conclusion, beyond her own personal conviction that it was so? What, after all, did she know of "man's nature"?

Today there is a very small minority of economists who take her ideas seriously. There are virtually no biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, ethologists, geneticists or evolutionary theorists who do. Her ideas about the individual simply do not fit the objective research about how our species behaves and prospers.

We are creatures with a long evolutionary history of social structure and social co-operation. This makes sense; we are predators without effective claws or teeth, and we can't run very fast. How did our ancient ancestors catch large elephant and buffalo? By working as a group, by co-operating and communicating. Social organization is our special adaptation, our evolutionary niche; indeed, it is now standard evolutionary theory that there are dynamic relationships between the development of intelligence, language and social organization - with the adaptive payoff being better social organization, the thing vital to survival. In fact there is nothing else that can satisfactorily explain such a stunning evolutionary adaptation as language; an adaptation that loses all meaning, by the way, if you deny that society exists.

Remember that the evolutionary line that leads to modern humans split from the chimpanzee line only about six million years ago. Agriculture is only about 8,000 years old. For all the rest of that time we lived as small tribes of hunter-gatherers, where co-operation was a vital survival skill and perishable food that could not be consumed had to be shared - because in the absence of refrigeration, the best place to store food was in the bodies and minds of others. This was a banking arrangement. It meant that these others would return the favor, for the same reason. There is very good evidence that the universal human skill of recognizing faces is an adaptation for recognizing individuals who attempt to cheat on this contract. We survive by helping each other; nothing sentimental in this. Here we see the roots of society, and society, since it serves all, has rights.

Obviously, human happiness is not served by putting the rights of the group above the rights of the individual; that has been tried, with disastrous results. What I am saying is that both social and individual rights are important and must be respected. The challenge of good government is to find workable compromises and means of arriving at these compromises that most members of a society will accept as legitimate. That's a lot harder to do than merely taking a doctrinaire stand: "Society is everything, the individual is nothing"; "The individual is everything, society is nothing

Ayn Rand, in her ignorance and sentimentality, glorified the individual above all other values. I am thinking of her ridiculous and cruel essays in The Romantic Manifesto. Poor thing, she never realized how much she had in common with other fascists - and I use that word not in the careless colloquial sense, but very advisedly. The Nazis were also a highly romantic movement, with a very romantic view of the exalted individual, the Superman who imposed his will on the world and re-shaped it to fit his vision, who never backed down and never compromised because he answered to a higher authority: himself. Strength was virtue, virtue strength, weakness and hesitation and ambiguity despised. A Brave New World was going to be created, along strictly scientific and unsentimental lines. Huge machines would be used in this goal, society would be mechanized, vast fields of accomplishment would be open to those leaders who had the courage and the creativity to seize the moment; all others would be at the disposal of these leaders. The success of these men, the extent to which they could remake the world and the material gains they could produce, would be their moral justification, the only one they needed.

Sound familiar? It's not an attractive model because it's not a human one. I find Rand's and Hitler's idea of the Romantic individual repugnant for the same reason; it is the same Romantic individual. It's no accident that the only group in Europe that takes Rand seriously at all is the neo-Nazis.

I am convinced that the true psychological reason Rand hated Hitler and Stalin - a reason, of course, completely unknown to herself - was jealousy.

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MORE ON JAY NORDLINGER: A while back I wrote in this space that I'd like to occasionally and recurringly take issue on these virtual pages with Jay Nordlinger at National Review. Nordlinger writes a column called "Impromptus," which in its smarmy dishonesty is even more annoying than the rest of what goes on at NR; and Nordlinger is far more extreme than even he realizes. I wish that every writer on the left would "adopt" a radical right-winger to regularly debunk. As I've written elsewhere, the right has been vigilant in fact-checking the left (which is good; I have no problem with fact-checking.) But the left has been absolutely negligent in fact-checking the right. This is an imbalance that must end.

So, to arms. On November 2, Nordlinger noted that George W. Bush has awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cuban political prisoner Oscar Biscet. Great! I'm glad, and I'm quite willing to accept Nordlinger's description of Biscet as an extraordinarily courageous and good man. But here's the problem. He goes on:

In awarding this medal, President Bush -- not for the first time -- has shown huge brass ones. How many other presidents would have done this? I can't think of any (save our boy, the 40th). And don't hold your breath for a president in the future who will act this way.

Wait a minute. It took "huge brass ones" (Nordlinger's infantile vulgarity) to give an award to a Cuban political prisoner? It was some kind of big political risk? I don't think so. Does Nordlinger really believe that any person of any significance in American culture or politics is going to object to this fine choice? The disingenuous implication, however, serves Nordlinger's nonsensical trope that the Democratic party, and the American left (two very different things) are fans of Castro, and are just waiting to attack Bush on Castro's behalf. Did Nordlinger follow up in subsequent columns when this implied attack utterly failed to materialize? Of course not.

Nordlinger goes on to note that Bush also gave a Medal of Freedom to Benjamin Hooks, the former head of the NAACP, and remarks that Hooks was constantly accusing Ronald Reagan of racism. Nordlinger objected to the accusation; says it was "unfair and mean," and that it turned him against the NAACP, although it is quite objectively true that Reagan served a racist agenda and used race-baiting to advance his career (not exactly the same thing as being a racist personally, but close enough.)

Nordlinger then writes, sarcastically,

Of course, it's nothing that a Democratic president wouldn't do, right? I mean, give a Medal of Freedom to a man who repeatedly trashed a Democratic hero. Right? Right?

Well, Bill Clinton gave a Medal of Freedom to Bob Dole, his opponent in the 1996 Presidential election. I think this is a pretty generous act, considering that Dole distorted and lied about Clinton's record in an extraordinarily nasty way during that campaign. Clinton did this right after the election, on January 17, 1997, before his second term had even begun.

Now here's something truly odd from Nordlinger.

The other day, something arrived in my inbox that made me barf. It was from a publisher -- some publicity material -- and I had scrolled down to get to the "unsubscribe" link. And I saw this: a logo with a pinetree and a winding road, and the words, "Please consider the environment before printing this email."

As I said, barfola.

I'm quite confused by this. What exactly is it that Nordlinger finds so offensive about this appeal to environmental consciousness? Is it wrong to ask people not to waste paper? Does this harmless request mean that "this is a mad, mad age, my friends - an age of environmental lunacy"? Very strange. Where does Nordlinger's hostility to the environment come from? After all, he has to live here on earth too.

Dick Cheney once said, scandalously, that conservation is a personal, not a public virtue. Nordlinger apparently doesn't even think it's personal - in fact, he seems to think that conservation is some sort of offensive vice. I guess he'll have plenty of time to ponder that when his office is underwater; which, by the way, will be bad for business.

More:

Last week, I visited the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, on the campus of Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. Named after John Ashbrook, the conservative congressman who died in the early '80s, the center is an inspiring place: an enclave of true learning. Students there get only the good stuff, really: the Greeks, the Romans, the Founders, Lincoln, and so on. No dross, no PC.

... it is the last ember from a great fire that has gone quiet -- the fire that was American education, and Western education. It's an Alice Walker, Howard Zinn, Heather Has Two Mommies world now. The Ashbrook people are sort of a remnant.

The center is run by Peter Schramm, a Hungarian-born, California-bred dynamo of an academic. He is both charismatic and scholarly -- a bona fide liberal, meaning that he advocates pluralism, sound culture, and freedom. I guess you can sum it up in the word "civilization."

I agree that any decent education should include the Greeks, the Romans, the Founders, Lincoln, and so on. And I'm no fan of Alice Walker, and definitely not of Howard Zinn. But should they be banished? And what does Nordlinger have against Heather Has Two Mommies for young readers? I think that a truly deep education should encompass many different things, and while the classics and Lincoln may be indispensable in the modern world, they are not, all by themselves, adequate for it.

I find it interesting that Nordlinger lists pluralism as a virtue right after proclaiming that anything that makes him uncomfortable should not be taught. Interesting, but not surprising.

One more thing about Nordlinger for now. He is, in a parallel life, a reviewer of classical music, and he prides himself for not letting his politics affect his musical judgment when he reviews performances by artists with whom he has political disagreements. That is admirable. But I note that Nordlinger's reviews run primarily in the rabid-right New York Sun, so far gone that it insinuates its political positions right into its news stories, just like the tabloid Post (although the Post has at least a few decent writers; the Sun news crew are just politically correct amateurs.)

Now, I'm not qualified to assess Nordlinger's talents as a reviewer. I love classical music, but frankly don't know that much about it, beyond preferring chamber music to orchestral, Baroque to Romantic. He could well be a fantastic reviewer. But surely he ought to know that his reviewing skills are not why the Sun buys his stuff. They do it because he's a radical right-winger. That's the only criteria they have for any of their contributors, good or bad, right or wrong.

Having followed Nordlinger's opinions for a while now, I have the feeling that he'd be offended if he realized this, and that he wouldn't want to write music reviews for an outfit that was only accepting them because of his political orientation. So he probably hasn't realized this. Which is kind of sad, actually.

MORE ON MICHAEL CANNON: Way back in August, I posted this review of Michael Moore's Sicko, in which I trashed Moore's dishonesty and his whitewashing of Cuba, but went on to defend the idea of a national health care system. Soon after that, I received a challenge from Michael Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute, who does not think that any kind of national health care can work. We agreed to a debate in our respective blog pages, each of us publishing a link to the other's defense of his position. Nine days later I posted my response to his challenge, in which I showed that he a) had misrepresented what I'd said in my original Moore piece, b) got a lot of his own "facts" wrong, and c) is motivated by ideology rather than by a nonpartisan regard for sound public policy.

My response was posted on August 16. Despite repeated notes to Cannon, he has not yet taken up the matter - a challenge that he initiated. Sadly, it seems that he can dish it out, but he can't take it. In the meantime, Paul Krugman has published several excellent pieces about the lengths that the right-wingers will go to deny the benefits of national health care. You can check them out on his author archive at the NYT.