Watching the recent attention given to Ayn Rand and her Objectivist philosophy has been bittersweet. I must admit that I was shocked years back finding out that Dick Cheney loved her books, because what he represents is the polar opposite of what I thought the books were really about. You see, I'm not a raging greed-fueled Capitalist, I'm an Artist. Not that I don't want to make a good living doing what I do, but I was affected in a radically different way by Rand's writings and philosophy and feel strongly that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were by far the two most important books I've ever read. Their impact on my own beliefs still resonates today in every aspect of my life, which is why I've found myself rather horrified by the vitriol spewed towards Rand in the general media.
But I would posit that there are two very different books in each of her novels and, depending on the reader, you get one or the other, but not both. They both have to do with selfishness but one veers towards Evil while the other, towards Salvation. Let me explain.
If you are a Capitalist or fan of Capitalism in general, then Rand's books speak to your inherent desire to make as much money as possible, pay as little taxes as possible and basically get yours regardless of others. The Dick Cheneys of the world douse their selfish mantle with the hot cologne of "Fuck You" hovering around their every move, their vision and purpose focused on the almighty dollar while ignoring the human chattel crushed beneath their Panzer tank mentality.
However, if you are an Artist, Rand's books free you from the opinions of others and put ironclad gates around your sense of purpose, unlocking the freedom to create your art unencumbered by the opinions or judgments of the rest of humanity. This is a profound and enlightening freedom available to those who choose it and denied to those who are taught to think they never could. The boldest of artists work not just outside the lines but with disregard to the existence of lines at all, with impunity from critics and the pearl-sniffing swine. They are able to release the purist visions from their unchained minds and create unabashedly personal work that exists solely as a manifestation of their will and desire, regardless of whether the world takes notice or regards it as such.
Great art and music can enlighten the world, lift the masses and stimulate the senses, as it has countless times in the evolution of humanity. But rampant deregulated Capitalism can (and always does) spawn a greed-fueled Hell on Earth, if you are among the 99.99% that are not reaping the financial rewards. You cannot cure humanity of greed, which is why laws and regulation exist in the first place.
In essence, there are two kinds of Selfish that can find their roots in Rand's writings. The first is the Dick Cheney/Alan Greenspan selfishness, inherent in Right wing think tank philosophy and spewed by the foaming mouths of Red State Republicans everywhere. Basically, it's the inherent selfishness, self-interest and self-righteousness of the Aristocracy as they pee on the Proles and count their ducats. Not to say that every rich person is that self-consumed; one only need look at the efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates to see that making and having money doesn't mean you have to be arrogant and self-consumed. Rand understood that Ethics was a separate concern than Selfishness, even though your sense of ethical rights and wrongs ultimately fuels the direction and intent of your selfishness.
The other kind of Selfish available in Rand's writings is not Left or Right, nor is it really political at all. It has more to do with one's sense of purpose, ownership of self and being true to ones core ideals. And not just as an Artist, though this is where Rand's philosophy has manifested itself most effectively in my own life. It goes down to the core of humanity and our own nature: whether you love or hate other people. And that relies on whether you see others as yourself, or whether you see them as separate and unequal.
You know, Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Do I think Dick Cheney or Alan Greenspan understand and share the feelings of others? Perhaps only each other, but certainly not the rest of "us." One can be totally selfish and still have empathy for others, to feel the bond of human brotherhood while being true to ones life purpose. I feel that way 100% and have been able to be true and uncompromising to my ideals and creativity while caring for and bonding with my brethren on the Planet Earth.
For those of you familiar with the Bible (the only book cited as more influential than Atlas Shrugged in a Library of Congress survey) there is a quote from Matthew 7:12 that reads, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Meaning in essence, treat others like you want to be treated. Therefore in theory, the more empathetic you are towards others, the more selfish you actually are towards yourself.
Most people think of the "Do unto others" quote in the case of things that we shalt not do, but it's really more powerful when we think of what we can and should do. If you love yourself, you will love others accordingly. If you hate yourself, you will have nothing but contempt and disdain for the rest of humanity and will take it out on them individually and collectively whenever possible. And if you happen to have the power of VP or Head of the Fed, for instance, your chances for global self-destruction are certainly amplified.
So is Selfishness a black and white issue? Hardly. We can think in absolutes but all theories are subject to the vagaries of reality, where things don't always go as planned and nothing is truly perfect. But we can easily see how ones sense of self and purpose- and ones inherent good or evil nature- can be affected in radically different ways by Rand's words. For instance, Atlas Shrugged's self-stated theme is "the role of the mind in man's existence- and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest." To the Capitalist, rational self-interest is far different than the musician or painter honing their craft. Same goes for Rand's quote about the essence of Objectivism being "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."
One could see how this rationale gives entirely different purpose to Dick Cheney or Alan Greenspan as it does to Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon. Indeed, imagine what the world would be like without Cheney, Bush or Greenspan, and reflect on what the world is already like without Lennon, Bob Marley or Hendrix. The latter group a gigantic loss for art and humanity; the former, a blight and pox on the world and it's occupants.
When you look at Rand's acolytes in the world of Capitalism, you see a group of people who believe that they are better than the rest of the world and have every right to suck and horde every dollar they can from anyone stupid enough to part with it. In laissez-faire Capitalism, you see the worst side of Selfishness: unencumbered by humility and empathy, with no connection to the planet and the people who inhabit it other than cash flow. Resources are for plundering, people are suckers and Money is Everything. The last few decades of greed and the bursting of bubbles have shown us the dark side of this mentality and the core problem of Selfishness without Empathy.
But to look at Rand's influence in the world of Art, simply turn up any Rush album and listen to the Objectivist prose of lyricist and master drummer Neil Peart. Being true to one's nature, one's mind and one's sense of purpose doesn't have to mean screwing over anyone in your path, nor does it mean letting anyone sway your core artistic beliefs. Indeed, the celebrated exchange between The Fountainhead's indelible architect Howard Roarke and his antagonist Ellsworth Toohey is instructive in this regard. When Toohey finally meets Roark, he asks "Why don't you tell me what you think of me, Mr. Roark?" to which Roark replies, "But I don't think of you." Roark isn't bent on destroying Toohey or even replying to his taunts and criticisms. He has no need to even acknowledge Toohey's vendetta-like critique of his work because he has no need for outside approval. Roark needs only his own reason and rationale for creating his work.
The power of this freedom on the artist is immeasurable. But building a building or writing a song or painting a painting in all it's selfish glory doesn't screw people over in any consequential way, while true selfishness in Capitalism has proved to be an unfettered disaster for most of humanity, aside from the choice few who have benefitted financially (talking to you Goldman Sachs). And so it goes, the worst of Capitalism is destructive on a human scale. Consequently, badly made art is simply ignored. I guarantee you Bernie Madoff's victims are far worse off than those who bought the last Prince album.
The individual "must exist for his own sake", Rand wrote in 1962, "neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." This belief fuels individuals like Lennon, Marley and Hendrix to speak truths that are not just freeing to them but to any other being they touch. Think of "Imagine." "Get Up Stand Up." "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. Empathy for the brotherhood of man, the rights of human dignity, the horrors of war. This is not about any political system but about a human system, the interconnected nature of people and the planet. Selfishness is supposed to be the opposite of altruism, but why can't you be both? To be altruistically selfish, where you can care and have empathy for all others while maintaining a strong sense of self-purpose? Absolutely.
Once again, look at Bill and Melinda Gates, rich beyond any of our wildest dreams and yet, donating billions to combat malaria and improve education around the world. I suppose one could say that Bill Gates is an altruistic Capitalist as well, making those two terms not so incongruous. But find me one altruistic Capitalist on Wall Street, giving up his bonuses to help his coworkers and sacrificing for the greater good. So far, it feels like Wall Street was the Titanic and when everyone rushed for the lifeboats, they had already sailed away to the Hamptons with Top Level Management and all the good champagne.
If your heart and soul are empathetic and altruistic, no amount of selfishness can break that bond you feel with others. Ayn Rand may have spawned some coldblooded Capitalists hellbent on raping the world, but she also gave enlightenment and freedom to those who would save and protect it. In the words of Jimi Hendrix, "When the power of love conquers the love of power then the world will know peace." I say bring it on!
The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me. - Ayn Rand
Freedom, freedom, give to me; That's what I need. Freedom, freedom to live Freedom, freedom, so I can give. - Jimi Hendrix, "Freedom"
A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others. - Ayn Rand
Live for yourself; there's no one else more worth living for. - Neil Peart/Rush, "Anthem"
What's the most depraved type of human being? The man without a purpose. - Ayn Rand
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights! Get up, stand up: dont give up the fight! - Bob Marley, "Get Up Stand Up"
Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values. - Ayn Rand
Imagine all the people Living for today... Imagine all the people Living life in peace... Imagine all the people Sharing all the world... - John Lennon, "Imagine"
The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see. - Ayn Rand
The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics ... are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride. - Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness