A new book on Ayn Rand and Objectivism came out in February, from St. Martin’s Press, Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, by Gary Weiss. The book will be reviewed here at a later date. However, if Weiss’s Huffington Post article on Ayn Rand is any indication of its objectivity, or lack of it, it telegraphs the book’s inherent malignity.
In his Huffington Post article, “Why You Shouldn’t Dismiss Ayn Rand,” Weiss does something no other liberal or conservative writer has ever done: he urges everyone to take Rand seriously, not because she was right, or prophetic, or was a deeper thinker than most academics will ever admit, but because she and her philosophy pose a danger to the political establishment, especially to the liberal/left establishment. To my knowledge, he is the first liberal to adopt the policy of knowing his enemy, instead of dismissing Rand as on or beyond the fringe of political thought.
That is the single credit I can grant him. And he is Rand’s enemy. He was clear about that in his article. And he doesn’t know Rand as well as he claims. He writes from essentially a “libertarian” perspective.
First, his article reveals that leftist director Oliver Stone of Wall Street notoriety wanted to adapt The Fountainhead to film, but apparently failed.
Stone believed that it would be possible to make a movie that would turn [The] Fountainhead’s lead character, an incredibly selfish man named Howard Roark, into a public-spirited altruist – a species of human that Rand believed to be evil incarnate. Why not? The positive character traits of Rand’s heroes – their individuality, their integrity – are not the exclusive territory of the far right.
Stone points the way, I think, for progressives and liberals to make a greater effort to understand Rand, and even to adopt some of her views, so as to better counter the right’s assault on social programs and the very concept of government.
Of course he failed. Individualism – authentic individualism, and not whimsical eclecticism or being “different” for the sake of being different, immature men wearing their baseball caps backwards come immediately to mind – is morally and politically incompatible with any brand of collectivism, and especially with altruism. Weiss and Stone see a value in individualism and integrity? No. If they did, they would respect the individualism and integrity of the author that made the novel possible, and not propose to steal it to promote collectivism.
Perhaps a better and more feasible film project for Stone might have been to turn Ellsworth Toohey, The Fountainhead’s chief villain, into a public-spirited altruist “good guy,” a less challenging transformation, to be sure. However, no “public-spirited altruist” or humanitarian can ever be a “good guy.” An altruist is fundamentally selfless, and asks his beneficiaries to be selfless, as well. And also dependent on his selflessness. Hitler was selfless – personally, and in his career – and look at the results.
Saul Alinsky was selfless, too. He was a real life Ellsworth Toohey, the character who made Howard Roark his special target.
RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)
But, that wouldn’t have been any fun for Stone. He prefers to speak kindly of dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Hugo Chavez. He would ignore, or be oblivious to, the fact that most humanitarians are at bottom killers. Such as Mother Teresa, who not so much wished to cure her charges of their diseases, as relieve their suffering, without actually eradicating it, and to make them dependent on her selflessness.
Weiss’s “exploration” of the idea of Howard Roark as a humanitarian may be discussed in more detail in the book. That remains to be seen, and will be covered when I review the book.
Even more absurd than proposing the appropriation of Rand’s hero and turning him into a selfless anti-hero, is Weiss’s proposed appropriation of the concept of “rational self-interest.”
Sure, the hyper-selfishness that she advocated was absurd. Rand was so intent on winning the intellectual argument over selfishness that she blithely misquoted the dictionary. But there is much to be said for people pursuing their rational self-interests, to use Rand’s terminology, when doing so does not infringe on the rights of others. That’s a concept the 99% should embrace. Why do we support social programs? Because it is in our rational self-interests. Progressive taxation is not in the rational self-interests of the 1%, but it is in the best interests of society as a whole–a concept that Rand did not accept. One can make a good argument that taxation is in the interests of the 1%, as members of the greater society.
Now we know something about Weiss’s own “individualism and integrity”: he has picked up the slogans of Occupy Wall Street and made them his own.
In the Randian worldview, however, there is no such thing as “the public,” there were only individual people, with individual rights. That may be fine if you’re a billionaire and don’t give a hoot about other people. It’s not so great if you’re a little guy, which is why collectivism–ordinary people’s collective prerogatives–is the antidote to the privileges of the 1%. It’s not in the rational self-interests of the 1% to support collectivism, but it is in the selfish interests of the rest of us. It’s also far more in keeping with the view of the Founders, who included forward-thinking progressives like Thomas Paine. He advocated a guaranteed national income.
So, progressive taxation, robbing the rich to support the mythical poor 99%, and not minding being robbed blind by an omnivorous government and endless “wars” on poverty and smoking and homelessness and unhealthy foods and whatever other “social” problems a humanitarian can concoct, is in one’s “rational self-interest”? One may as well, to paraphrase Whittaker Chambers in his hysterically malicious review of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, claim that entering a gas chamber would be in one’s rational self-interest, if one cared about “society,” because it would mean more air and food and shelter for those who don’t enter it.
Thomas Paine was not one of the Founders. He was a pamphleteer who, after the American Revolution, left the Revolution behind and began advocating socialism, something none of the Founders ever did.
Collectivism is the “ordinary people’s collective prerogative”? So were the OWS mobs. So were the guillotines of the Reign of Terror. Or Derrick Bell’s “critical race theory.” Or ObamaCare.
I’m not a Rand follower–an “Objectivist”–and never will be. I don’t believe in laissez-faire, free-market capitalism. I believe in regulation and taxation and Medicare–all the things she hated (even though she became a Medicare recipient when it suited her purposes). But I can’t deny that there were aspects of her work that appealed to me. It’s foolish, I found, to pretend that Rand is a repulsive creature that only nutcases could fine appealing. If that were so, she wouldn’t be as powerful–and dangerous–as she is today.
Weiss believes in regulation, taxation and Medicare – and probably Social Security and the plethora of other entitlement scams, scams founded on government fraud, extortion and force, as well – but has never actually bothered to examine the moral and economic consequences of these laws and policies. Weiss has the reputation of being an “investigative journalist,” although to judge by his publishing credits, they are more in the nature of publicist for collectivism than they are instances of genuine investigation or journalism.
Note Weiss’s parenthetical; snarky zinger he includes in his statement, that Rand was a “Medicare recipient when it suited her purposes.” Evva Pryor, who worked for Rand’s law firm and handled signing the paperwork to apply for Social Security and Medicare towards the end of Rand’s life, said that she persuaded Rand to grant her power of attorney in these matters.* At the time when it “suited her,” Rand and her husband, Frank O’Conner, were in declining health. Pryor argued with Rand that because Rand “had worked her entire life and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it.”
I would disagree with that argument, because Social Security by that time was being financed by deficits; the money extorted from individuals having already been spent a generation before. The government was simply “crediting” Social Security based on the future income earnings of generations that hadn’t even yet entered the work force. Medicare itself was an overture to ObamaCare and the enslavement of the medical profession. Pryor does not explain how she convinced Rand to grant her the power of attorney to handle the matters, but when one is dealing with force or the consequences of force, virtually any decision is legitimate that allows one to “fight another day.” Such a concession is not indicative of defeat or compromise, nor is it indicative of moral corruption, as Weiss insinuates.
Weiss ends his article with:
The Founders were certainly not Randian; they sacrificed for others. They were altruists. If they’d have thought only of themselves, there would have been no revolution. Today, the revolution is being waged by the right. It will be successful–unless the rest of us stop ridiculing Ayn Rand and begin taking her seriously.
No, the Founders did not sacrifice themselves, nor were they altruists (the term not having been coined yet by August Comte). They were political thinkers who were committed to the idea of freedom, and that commitment required an individualism and integrity utterly foreign to Weiss. Fighting to preserve one’s values is not a “sacrifice” if those values are imperiled by especially government force.
It was the Founders’ commitment to political freedom – of selfishly thinking of their own personal freedom – that made the Revolution possible. America has been the beneficiary of that selfishness ever since 1776. That inheritance has since been frittered away in the realm of politics.
However, if liberals and leftists heed Weiss’s advice, and attempt to appropriate elements of Objectivism for their own collectivist ends, one can expect to hear yelps of shock when their collectivist premises encounter Rand’s individualist ones and cause philosophical short-circuiting.
Alchemists have tried turning lead into gold before. The modern alchemists will be equally as unsuccessful in their attempts to turn a philosophy of reason into a philosophy of need and “social justice,” and at their own peril.
To be continued in a forthcoming book review of Weiss’s Ayn Rand Nation.
*100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand. Scott McConnell, ed. New York: New American Library, 2010. P. 521