Sunday Night Journal — August 10, 2008
A Few More Notes on Ayn Rand
(Please excuse the bulleted list; there is still more to say here than I have time for, and this is a way of doing it more quickly.)
What she got right.
As I mentioned last week, I think she’s right to insist on appreciation and recognition of the intelligence, creativity, and labor involved in scientific and technical progress.
She is fiercely dedicated to the truth and hates lies, lying, and liars. In Atlas Shrugged she hits very effectively the sort of lying that happens in institutions where everyone is concerned with avoiding blame—the lying that’s accomplished by euphemism, evasion, and silent agreement not to say aloud what is actually intended.
She disdains the sort of man or woman whose only real skill is manipulating a bureaucracy for his own benefit.
One reason the Rand phenomenon interests me is that although she and her supporters are generally looked at as being on the socio-political right and are loathed by the left, many of her fundamental beliefs cross that divide. This is an instance confirming the often-made observation that our “right” and “left” are (in general—there are many exceptions, etc. etc.) more precisely described as “right-liberal” and “left-liberal,” with “liberal” referring to 19th century or classical liberalism, i.e. secular pragmatism. I conjecture that this does not so much prove Rand’s influence as shed light on her appeal; the American mind is already open to her philosophy. Here are some of the common features; some of them are clear ideas, some are only attitudes:
Atheism. I mean both the hard angry atheism of Dawkins et.al. (and Rand) and the soft “spiritual but not religious” atheism of less dogmatic souls. I also mean, less obviously, the unacknowledged practical atheism of many nominal Christians for whom Christianity is mainly a vehicle for achieving practical results: social justice for the left, prosperity and freedom for the right. Both judge Christianity by its utility in “the real world,” meaning the material world.
Individual sovereignty. I could almost say individual deification; many years ago someone wrote of “America’s evolving religion of self-worship,” and both right-liberals of Rand’s stripe and left-liberals tend toward it, seeing the individual as an “imperial self” (I can’t remember who coined that term), which appears out of nowhere owing nothing to anyone. Right-liberals emphasize this in the economic and political sphere, left-liberals in the personal sphere, especially and obsessively in all matters pertaining to sex.
A very high regard for one’s own intelligence combined with contempt for those considered stupid, a category which includes most people. Everybody except me is an idiot is a sentiment to which intelligent young people (and of course some not so intelligent) are naturally inclined, especially when their superiority seems unrecognized and unappreciated. It’s a natural tendency, but mature people get over it. Randians and many on the political left have made it a fundamental part of their view of the world.
Rejection of the idea of the Fall and of original sin. I don’t mean here rejection of the Christian doctrine specifically, but of the fundamental recognition that we live in an inherently flawed world and that every single human being in it is inherently flawed, a mixed bag of good and bad, true and false, strength and weakness. And that our ability to make it right is very limited.
Incomprehension of and intolerance of disagreement. Disagreement in good faith is not possible; only wickedness and stupidity suffice to explain resistance to the obvious truth. Therefore whatever is wrong with the world is so because the stupid and wicked people will not accept my/our prescription for putting it right. This has as a corollary a burning resentment that Those Other People Are Ruining Everything. Atlas Shrugged practically boils with it. I don’t mean anger over specific words or deeds on the part of opponents, but anger that they exist at all. You see it on both sides of our political debates. I think its violent implications are not sufficiently noted.
I make a distinction between deep and shallow atheism. The atheism of objectivism is shallow, as is apparent from the entry on atheism in the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Deep atheism understands (if only unconsciously) the problem of time and death, the human need for God, and the implications of his absence. Shallow atheism thinks all such thoughts are nonsense and a distraction from immediate material concerns. Deep atheism can produce great art. I’m not aware of any produced by shallow atheism.
I noted the absence of humor in Atlas Shrugged. Here is Ayn Rand herself on the idea of laughing at oneself: “[To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous .... The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.” That needs no further comment.
Eight or ten years ago when I drove a car with only a radio, no tape or cd player, I sometimes listened to a morning comedy show which included occasional visits from a character called Mad Max, who delivered enraged rants about everything from Bill Clinton to people who don’t use their turn signals, punctuated with—you have to imagine this in a sort of lower-class southern accent through gritted teeth—“It makes me so damn mad..” One of his standard lines was “Why don’t they just shut up and quit ruining my life?” I thought of him many times while reading Atlas Shrugged.