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Mike Bonifer

Mike Bonifer

Posted April 1, 2009 | 03:38 PM (EST)

Why Ayn Rand Does Not Matter (and Viola Spolin Does)


Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine sent me a Nasty-gram for participating in Earth Hour.

Now, I'm not exactly the greenest guy on the planet, and I think the environmental movement can do a better job of inspiring instead of proscribing participation. At the same time, I believe that sustainability is a powerful engine of economic growth that we cannot afford to ignore or restrain.

My acquaintance on the other hand, believes that it's hypocrisy to engage in symbolic acts like turning out lights for an hour in support of sustainability. He writes:

I don't want any pressure to act in ways that end up being uninformed in their end result. While "easy," using cardboard signs to promote a Green event is another living example.

If you want to profit from the momentum, I applaud your business sense. I'll -- sadly -- stick to my principals and end up losing my house in the "reset" environment.

Fighting City Hall is neither in-action, nor the road to riches, but I'll pick the Ayn Rand hero approach.

I was ready to let the Nasty-gram pass without comment, but the 'Ayn Rand hero approach' lit me up, because when it comes to productive avenues for innovation and growth, especially in the current economic climate, the Rand approach is a recipe for personal and organizational disaster. Here's why:

What Ayn Rand created was, and still is, fiction. It never existed and it never will. Objectivism is nothing but a chimera.

Rand built her objectivist heroes, Howard Roark and John Galt, out of what she perceived to be the failings of men. Her father lost his pharmacy to the Bolsheviks when she was young and it left a lifelong impression on her. For Rand, individuals were forever doomed by the whims of the collective, just like her father was. Period. Done. She had it all figured out when she was 12.

She spent her life inventing all the reasons that held men back from their greatness, and describing the forces of mediocrity (i.e. the City Halls and the Tooheys and the second-handers of the world) allied against great men. Objectivism became a mask for her own disappointment. She created a philosophy to accommodate this disappointment, depicted in fictional worlds where reason and the work of the mind constitute perfection. This has nothing to do with the truth, with the way the world really works.

The truth is that individual fate and human destiny are shaped far more by emotion and the environment than by reason. That's just the way it is, biologically speaking. This gets to the the flaw in Rand's world view. Our emotions and our responses to the situations in which we find ourselves are far more important to our growth and evolution than what's in our heads.

When you boil it down, objectivism is just Ayn Rand compensating for reality's shortcomings by making up something that doesn't exist. Howard Roark never existed. Nothing he designed ever got built (nor should it have, it was ugly stuff, architecturally speaking). Who is John Galt? He's a fiction living in a disappointed woman's head. Believing in Ayn Rand is mistaking fiction for fact. It's like having Keanu Reeves as your role model. You become an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the fictions of others.

By contrast, it was Ayn Rand's contemporary, Viola Spolin, who created a living philosophy that is not only real, it's more relevant today than it has ever been. She called it improvisation.

Spolin was a loving, nurturing woman and mother, an educational pioneer who never stopped teaching and sharing her knowledge, primarily with children, through this thing she called improvisation. Via improvisation, she confronted problems of poverty, learning, multi-culturalism and assimilation head-on, and encouraged learning through the playing of games that solved problems. She created a body of work that has lasted, not as fiction, but as a real modus operandum.

The 'Spolin approach' provides a way for people of different cultures, with different life experiences, to work together collaboratively to achieve productive outcomes. See, that's what improvisation is. The 'Group Mind' of Spolin's art is not Ayn Rand's dreaded collectivism. It is not the same as 'Group Think.' It is a way for individuals to participate fully and authentically in the solving of problems. It is a path to innovation and inspiration and personal commitment. That's how Spolin conceived of improvisation, and that's what it remains to this day.

The constant outcomes of improvisation, as Spolin explained, are communication, learning and transformation. What is more vital to our growth and well-being than those constants? What is more effective in this world, or more needed today, than collaborating effectively despite our different points of view?

The principles Spolin established have been studied and practiced by tens of millions of people over the past 50 years, and by that I don't just mean folks read her book and think a character in it is cool and they want to be like that character. I mean they have actualized what's in her book, and learned ways of behaving that can be carried out of the theater and into the world, as a way of life. Her students and advocates have learned ways to be more of what they are, not less of what they fear. They have learned ways to expand the world around them, not diminish it. Ways of creating more they they consume. Ways of doing a lot with a little.

Improvisation is not a chimera. It really exists. This email is improvisation. The next unscheduled phone call you get or conversation you have will result in improvisation.

Interestingly, 'the objective' is an important element of Spolin's teaching. And it means almost the opposite of Rand's objectivism. To Spolin, it means giving yourself over to the problem at hand, setting aside ego and letting the environment and the scene you're in determine the best course of action (knowing all the while that one's choices will be informed by but not determined by intellect.)

Rand was all about flexing one's ego and intellect. Spolin, by contrast, saw ego and intellect as preventing people from being in the moment and achieving the ego-less state that she called 'the objective.' Ego is subjective. It gives no credence to context. It is reality warped by reason and, as such, is counter-productive to any process but the process of attempting to inflict one's own script or point of view on the world. And that is a sure path to Randian-style disappointment. Alan Greenspan? Rand protege? Disappointment, personified.

As for what you describe as my opportunism, my hypocrisy, my front-runningness, my herd mentality in aligning with Earth Hour, that's a fiction you're choosing to impose on me. It has nothing to do with my reality. The gulf between the script you're writing about me and the reality I am experiencing is so huge that you can only be disappointed by your inability to connect the two.

Because you express concerns about losing your home, and because you're a car buff, I have a story that may shed a little light on Viola Spolin's way of engaging with the world.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather lost his job as a Cadillac mechanic in Louisville. He and my grandmother and their six kids packed up and left the big city for a small town in Indiana, where my grandfather opened a small garage. He was a good mechanic. The garage grew, and he and my dad and uncles started a small trucking company, and with the proceeds from that trucking company, they bought a small farm.

My father was 12 years old (same age as Rand when her dad lost the pharmacy) when they moved from Louisville. He was crazy about cowboy movies and horses. There were no movie theaters in this little town, and that had to suck for him, had to be disappointing. But my father was able to get his own horse when he was 16, and after that, his life became its own kind of cowboy movie. By the time I was born, my grandfather was the only person in Ireland, Indiana, who drove a Cadillac. My family lived on the farm next to my grandparents. At one point, my dad owned upwards of 40 horses. (Not really what you'd call good horses, but that's another story. ) My grandparents' farm still belongs to our family, and my mom still lives on our farm. It was not easy for anyone. It was not without struggle and crises and tears. But it was, and still is, graced by happiness and laughter and beauty.

See, my grandparents had a choice. They could have wallowed in their disappointment that life did not unfold according to their expectations. But they chose not to do that. They chose to make the best move they could make, given the situation. You may call this opportunism. I call it life.