Monday, February 5, 2007

Ayn Randed, nearly Branded

“I’ve been Ayn Randed, nearly branded, Communist, ‘cause I’m left handed, but that’s the hand I use, well, never mind.” – Paul Simon, “A Simple Desultory Philippic.


When I was 14, I read The Fountainhead. Soon after that, I read Atlas Shrugged. Then We, the Living. Then Anthem. I even read The Night of January 16th. I read For the New Intellectual. I subscribed to The Objectivist. I read The Virtue of Selfishness. I read Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. Ayn Rand touted Hayek, so I read Hayek. And von Mises, so I read von Mises. Milton Friedman, Henry Hasslet, The Feminine Mystique, all Randian recommendations. I bought a recording of a Tchaikovsky piano concerto that she liked. I eventually even found a copy of Calumet K.

Sounds like the recipe for a Randroid, doesn’t it?

Okay, how about this: Ayn Rand didn’t like Kant, so I read Critique of Pure Reason. She hated Keynes; I read the General Theory. She called Nietzsche a “whim worshiper,” so I read Nietzsche. She despised John Kenneth Galbraith, Thorstein Veblen, Karl Marx, so I read them all. She found existentialism abhorrent, so I sought out Sartre, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Buber. She disdained the logical positivists, so I read about positivism, and eventually even formed an opinion about what Wittgenstein was going on about. I also realized fairly early that what Rand was calling “Objectivist epistemology” was basically a variant of positivism, which was fairly revealing.

Maybe no so Randroidal as all that, eh?

I had a few friends in Nashville who were interested in some of the things I was interested in, even a couple of who were interested in the philosophical ramblings about. But I didn’t encounter many followers of Ayn Rand in Nashville, nor even at RPI. Those I did run into were, well, embarrassing, and I was curious as to why.

It was obvious pretty early on that there were some pretty gaping flaws in the Objectivist party line. For one thing, while this business of never “initiating” force, i.e. only fighting in self-defense sounds good, it pretty much ignores the problem of what we now call “collateral damage.” If collateral damage is forbidden, then you’re basically a pacifist. If it is ignored, then you have a loophole you can drive an atrocity through. Either way, you’re dealing with something that has been conveniently swept under the rug.

Then there was the jargon. Here I’m going to express a bit of pride for my teenaged self. It was apparent to me early on that if an idea was any good, you should be able to express it ways that did not depend on a jargonized vocabulary.

Sure, there are specialized terms that, when unpacked, become very long explanations, but that wasn’t really what was going on with the Randites. “Looter” and “Witch Doctor” aren’t specialized technical terms; they are pejoratives. Using them immediately labels you as a card carrying Randite, and also impedes, rather than advances, discourse. It does, however, give you a ticket into an in-group. Which, of course, every Randite would claim is the furthest thing from their mind.

In 1973, I suggested to the student head of the RPI Union Programs and Activities that it would be very interesting to have Karl Hess come to talk. As a bit of a reward, I got to pick him up at the airport, and we had a very nice talk on the way back to RPI, and his speech was also pretty fascinating. But his main purpose there was making converts, and he wasn’t particularly interested in me in that regard. He was interested in the Randites. Hess was Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter in 1964, so the analogy that comes to mind is that Hess was “hunting where the duck are.” He was on a mission to convert Randites to his own form of left libertarianism. He did a pretty good job of it, too.

I’ve made a stab or two, over the years, at “deprogramming” Randites, and it’s a hard row to hoe. Nevertheless, I think that there’s something important going on in that part of the pumpkin patch, and too many people are simply dismissive of the whole thing. Hess’s stated opinion was that adolescence is a lonely time, and Rand held out the hope of being “heroically lonely.” Rand also elevated the mother’s argument that “They’re mean to you because they’re jealous,” to an art form, and that’s another peg on the board. In any case, Atlas Shrugged has been in print for just short of fifty years.

The only way that it isn’t science fiction is that it didn’t first appear as a serial in one of the pulps. It has a more-or-less perpetual motion machine and a new version of 10 point steel as MacGuffins, not to mention a sonic death ray. The characters talk to each other in long monologues that attempt to explain the nature of their world, and the climax is one of those speeches that is over a hundred pages long.

And, again, it’s been continually in print for fifty years and has sold over five million copies. It’s easily one of the best selling SF novels of all time. Moreover, polls show that an ungodly number of people rate it as the Book That Has Most Influenced Their Lives. Figure out what makes it tick and you’ve found one of the main ki channels of American life. And, no, I haven’t figured out what makes it tick.

I see that there is news about plans to make a movie about it, though. My advise to the director would be to cut way back on the speeches and concentrate on the kinky sex. I may not be 14 any more, but I know what I like.

1 comment:

clive said...

Came across your blog here.
I would regard myself as an Objectivist. I choose not an open mind, but an active one.
As soon as I saw your use of the term Randian, I figured I probably won't learn anything. But the way you wrote intrigued me, so I read on. There was an air of excitement that you may reveal something that I hadn't considered.
You see I find it much more interesting to be wrong than right. Finding out I'm wrong brings me closer to objective facts. When I'm right, it's just a confirmation that I am where I am, and all is well. That's great, but it's not exciting in the way I have described.
Finally you arrived at your point of an Objectivist contradiction...? That is to say when you broached the subject of collateral damage.

All though you offered no specific example, I will try to.

It isn't valid to use historical examples of war and the civilian deaths that have come from it, as a basis to throw collateral damage against Objectivist epistemology, when those interventions have not come from a free-market nation.

Regarding the second world war, Ayn certainly believed (and I understand her view)that America ought to have let the Nazi's slug it out with the Communist and then taken on the "winner" and destroyed them.
In that case the collateral damage you are referring to would have been made up of citizens supporting that evil nation.
As far as that goes, they deserve what they get.
But if you want to speak of the innocent children, those are children that have individual rights to life, but those rights are the responsibility of their parents. If those parents wish to put their own children in harms way, then it comes down to values. Do you not attack a group that is willing to attack you because their children might get caught in the crossfire? In which case what of the life of your own child that looses his life because you stood back passively when you were under threat of physical force?
If you have to choose between the potential death of an enemy's child or your own in such terms, it is immoral to jeopardize the safety of your own.
This is within the nature of the horror of war, and why putting profit through productive energy is the most effective way to minimize it.
If this is what you mean by collateral damage, then I see no contradiction.

Can you give a specific example that we could work through?