Thursday, April 28, 2011

Black Box Warning: Something Good About Ayn Rand

As part of “Put Ayn Rand on a Spit and Roast Slowly Week,” we compared the movie version of “Atlas Shrugged” to “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” unmasked her as “666” in the 2008 financial-economic apocalypse, and exposed her silly objectivist philosophizing as a fraud.

Okay, I know you’re not going to believe this, but Rand’s strongest critics back in her day weren’t communist sympathizers or left-wing intellectuals (or for that matter anyone with half a brain). No, it was the far right. This from a 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged by Whitaker Chambers in William Buckley’s National Review:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.

“To a gas chamber - go!” the review concluded.

In 1964, Buckley condemned "her desiccated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral," comparing her unyielding dogmatism to the likes of Savonarola (the fanatical Florentine monk who burned books and works of art during the Renaissance).

Forgive me, but any enemy of the far right is a friend of mine.

Buckley’s major contribution to the conservative movement was in cloaking an essentially Visigoth creed in a veneer of civility. The far right, back in those days, had image problems. A country which had prospered and achieved world leadership under FDR and Truman (and let’s give Ike credit, too) was not about to display its gratitude by voting back into office the same people who had inflicted upon them the Great Depression, unemployment, bread lines, social injustice, isolationism, and union-busting.

By branding himself as a conservative that liberals could stomach, Buckley is credited for setting the scene for the Reagan Presidency and the unrelenting sorry mess that followed. But first, he had to purge those who might blow his cover. Segregationists and McCarthyites who essentially knew how to hold a knife and fork correctly were allowed to remain members in good standing. (Buckley was both a white supremacist and an ardent defender of the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts.)  Anti-Semites (even those with good table manners) were not. Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, was too much of a loose cannon.

Then there was Ayn Rand. As well as being an atheist (she once told Buckley, an observant Catholic, that he was too smart to believe in God), she preached a gospel of naked (she called it rational) self-interest.

Every right-winger worth his salt, Buckley included, believed in exactly the same thing. Free enterprise is based on the principle, and you can make a very good case that it serves the public interest far better than any system that claims to act in the greater good. I have greatly benefited from living in a society based on naked self-interest - I’m not stupid.

Ayn Rand sneered at the idea of altruism, but she wasn’t exactly against it, and it would be unfair to pin this rap on her. What she was against was forced altruism. According to Rand, that’s where the trouble starts, and she witnessed it first-hand in her native Russia after Lenin’s Bolsheviks took over. Once the greater good comes into play, it is time to get the hell out of Dodge. No longer does the state serve the individual. Rather, the individual serves the state. Always with catastrophic results.

Yes, we all long to be part of something greater than ourselves, but there exist no shortage of evil people most happy to exploit this noble side of our nature.

Obviously, the greater good was by no means a communist monopoly. Propagandists such as William Buckley needed to use it to make their case for a kinder and gentler brand of “screw-you-I’m-rich” conservatism. It also helped if they could use religion as a club to beat dissenters over the head.

But here was Ayn Rand, telling it like it was, undermining Buckley. Give Ayn Rand full marks for her honesty and courage. I came of age during the sixties. I read Buckley’s columns. I watched him on “Firing Line.” For all his collegial bantering with the likes of liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith, this man was an enemy of democracy.

Make no mistake, it is the far right who originated politically correct. If you don't believe me, cast your mind back to the flag-burning amendment controversy and the people who supported it. Also, check the credentials of those who lead book burnings.

Heaven help back in the day if you believed in racial equality or social justice - that made you a communist. Heaven help if you objected to poor young boys being drafted to fight an ill-conceived war - that made you an some kind of traitor.

“Love it or leave it,” appeared on the bumper stickers of the day, and leading the chorus was the glib and smooth-talking Bill Buckley.

So whenever “the greater good” comes up in the name of country or religion of some other ideal, we need to pay attention to Ayn Rand. I’m proud to consider myself altruistic. I freely give my time to individuals and worthy causes. But when it comes to forced altruism - of someone else telling me how to think and behave and what stupid war I'm supposed to die in - put me foursquare in Rand’s corner.

Of all things, Ayn Rand has now become a right-wing folk hero, but probably only because Fox News has neglected to inform its viewers that their new role model was rabidly atheist, pro-abortion, slept around quite a bit, was ethnically Jewish, and insisted on marching to her own drum.

The world is a funny place ...


Lizabeth said...

There is this very wierd thing that seems to happen to a lot (maybe even the majority) of people who have/make money. The acquiring of money seems to become some sort of game or status symbol and it does not matter who gets hurt along the way. Making more money than one person could possible spend makes a person a winner. The same thing applies to political power and you are correct Ayn Rand called out the consevatives of her day on it and was definitly a liberated woman ahead of her time. However, she also tesified for "Tail gunner" Joe McCarthy regarding communists in Hollywood so don't get too carried away with the praise.

A lot of her 'objectivism' seems to be more of a reaction to Russian history than to that of the United States.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Lizabeth. No question about it. When it came to her own warped view of utopia and its enemies, Ayn Rand was the paragon of political correctitude. McCarthy was right wing political correct gone wild, along with the Hollywood blacklists. She and Buckley and McCarthy were the worst kind of Soviet commissars, but I know they lacked the insight to see the irony. Buckley was all for dismantling democracy to serve his own crazy interests and Ayn Rand never believed in democracy to begin with. Her "objectivism" is her own personal resentment over the Bolshevik revolution. It's a legitimate point of view, but to in anyway imply it is "objective" or is a true depiction of "absolute reality" is patently absurd.