Thanks for sticking with me after the first half of this monstrous column wrapping up our series on Ayn Rand and her overlong orgy of Objectivism, Atlas Shrugged. I realize you could have ditched me and headed for Galt’s Gulch by now; instead you’ve chosen, like Dagny Taggart (or like Al Gore in the 2000 primaries, comparing himself to Senate retiree Bill Bradley), to “stay and fight.” Dagny Taggart and Al Gore exalted in the same breath … only on Popdose!
Anyway, having devoured as much Rand material as I can stand, and then having taken a bit of time to digest it, I will now admit (please don’t tell anyone) that I find admirable elements in her philosophy – but only as it relates to the individual and the way he travels through his own life. Self-esteem, in measured quantities, is certainly a good thing. As an idealized primer for living, it’s easy to see why Objectivism might work — for some people, of particular backgrounds, means and abilities — and it’s also easy to see why many of Rand’s followers are so goddamned smug about it. As for everyone else … and as for Rand’s prescriptions for organizing (or, rather, dis-organizing) society … well, that’s another story.
My own very tentative relationship with the concept of “God,” and my personal rejection of organized religious belief, leaves me particularly open to Rand’s arguments for atheism – and she is perhaps even more persuasive on this topic than our like-minded contemporary authors. I was particularly impressed with a fascinating passage in Galt’s speech arguing that the concept of “original sin” – you know, Adam and Eve biting the apple from the “tree of knowledge” and all that – was invented as a method of turning man against his own mind, and that “mystics of spirit” have convinced men to sublimate their free will in favor of religious doctrines pitting the sinful body against the virtuous soul. Both, to Galt, are “symbols of death … A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost – yet such is [religionists’] image of man’s nature.” And with reason removed from the equation, man “was left at the mercy of two monsters whom he could not fathom or control: of a body moved by unaccountable instincts and of a soul moved by mystic revelations – he was left as the passively ravaged victim of a battle between a robot and a Dictaphone.” (A rare infusion of humor in the otherwise oppressively dour Randian landscape!)
Of course, until very recently religious stories served not only as a means of establishing and enforcing social control, but as a way of explaining humanity, the world, and death (or, if you prefer, life, the universe, and everything) to fearful people in the absence of scientific knowledge. And yes, plenty of folks still “cling” to their faith – as our President once noted indelicately — as a means of maintaining tradition and comfort in a still-uncertain world. That’s part of human nature … a nature toward which Rand often seems to have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.
In theory, relying on individual reason and rationality in one’s personal decisions and actions, and placing the highest value on one’s own virtues, ambitions and desires are profoundly worthwhile goals. And it’s nice to think that such a worldview can work out splendidly, particularly if you have the intellectual and/or physical talents, as well as the education and the means, to live that way. Unfortunately, not everyone does. Indeed, even Rand asserted that the vast majority of people aren’t virtuous enough to put her ideas into practice. Asked by Mike Wallace in 1959 if a “weak” man is “beyond” her conception of love, Rand said, “He certainly does not deserve it … if a man wants love he can correct his flaws, his weaknesses … but he cannot expect the unearned.” Wallace: “There are very few of us, then, in this world, by your standards, who are worthy of love.” Rand: “Unfortunately, yes, very few. But it is open to everybody to make themselves worthy of it, and that is all my morality offers them.”
Which begs the question, what good is a philosophy that applies only to the “very few,” often at the expense of the many? Politically speaking, Rand yearned not merely for an end to Communism (in her home country) and “welfare state” entitlements (throughout the West), but for a return to the era before the permanent imposition of the income tax in 1913 – and before the Progressive reforms of the previous decade that curbed monopolies and trusts and offered workers minimal protection from exploitation. She insisted that a society in which each man operated rationally and in his own self-interest, and never used force against another man – which wouldn’t really be a “society” at all, she was happy to note – would be free from monopolies or exploitation. But what evidence did she have that such would be the case? In fact, as I’ve argued before, all the evidence of our history suggests exactly the opposite – that the captains of industry who built Rand’s beloved steel, rail, oil, automobile, and other industries did so on the backs of laborers who were exploited to the fullest extent possible, via low wages, long hours and dangerous working conditions. Those laborers’ lesser education, skills and/or class left Randian pursuits largely inaccessible to them – unless they were willing to accept those low wages and poor conditions as the “full value” of their labor. And generations would have been doomed to follow in their subjugated footsteps were it not for government regulation of industry … or for public schooling, for that matter, which would also fall by the wayside in Rand’s taxation-free utopia.
I’ve said this before, as well, but I believe that the downfall of Objectivism is its Social Darwinism – its refusal to account for the fact that, in a free and civilized world, an individual’s rights end at the place where another’s begin, and that if my rights and interests exist in conflict with someone else’s, they should be resolved in a manner that is fair to both parties. American economic history — much of human history, really — is a story of the struggles between management and labor, whites and blacks (and Hispanics, and Native Americans, immigrants, etc.), men and women, young and old, as they’ve competed for economic and political power, not to mention the basic freedom to pursue their interests. The path of growth among democratic governments over the last century, from taxation to regulation to entitlements, has mirrored the perceived need for correctives to be found for the imbalances in those power struggles — not to tear down those who have more power and money, but to empower and, yes, provide a “safety net” of bare-minimum subsistence and opportunity for those who have less. It is entirely possible, indeed it is downright common, to be “altruistic” in the dictionary sense – that is, to have a healthy interest in the welfare of one’s fellow man, regardless of any “value” a person in need may be to you, and to be willing to use both charity and government to “promote the general welfare” – without being “altruistic” in the Randian sense of thoroughly subjugating one’s own interests for the sake of others. Such a distinction is lost throughout Atlas Shrugged and Objectivist philosophy in general, to the novel’s (and Rand’s) discredit.
Note the word “democratic” in the paragraph above. Had a majority of self-interested Americans opposed the income tax in 1913, Social Security in 1934, or Medicare in 1965, they could have swept into power representatives who promised to overturn those programs. Assuming the health care bill passes this month, they’ll get another chance this fall and/or in 2012 – but don’t bet on such a reversal happening, even if Republicans do win big. The simple fact is that most citizens of the U.S. and other democratic societies – rich, poor, and middle class alike — approve of some amount of “redistribution of wealth” via government taxation, regulation and spending, regardless of their personal “rational” interest in the people served by the programs financed with their money. Huge majorities believe, unlike Rand, that roads, public schools, infrastructure, and a social safety net for children, seniors and the poor are worthwhile uses of government money (i.e., their own taxes). And even most conservatives believe that government is good for considerably more than Rand’s very narrow prescription: local and national security, and the protection of private property via the justice system. Citizens often vote to change course when they decide their government needs a corrective – when it is taxing and spending too much, or serving the public too little. Even taking into account the frequently negative impacts of special interests and bloated bureaucracies, part of the glory of democracy is its tendency to keep the extremes in check, and to keep governments from sliding toward the sort of totalitarianism Rand portrays in Atlas Shrugged. She often called the United States “the only moral country in the history of the world,” but it would seem she approved only of the theory embodied in its governing principles, not the reality of their execution.
According to Rand, approving of the government’s legal capacity to tax its citizens and spend their money to help other citizens – its forced altruism, in other words — is not only immoral but irrational, and even “unthinking.” She theorized in absolutes that run contrary not just to the teachings of “mystics of muscle” or “mystics of spirit,” but to human nature itself; to her, it is impossible for a “rational” New Yorker to care whether an unemployed stranger in Arizona has adequate health care, or whether an African-American stranger in Mississippi faces job discrimination. And that is where she veers from philosophy to sociopathy, and where her ideas lose their merit. Indeed, the arrogance of her stance makes one wonder if her opposition to active government was truly an outgrowth of lofty ideas about “reason” and “rationality,” or whether her emphasis on “the mind” is merely an invention designed to justify her selfishness and belittle opposing ideas. “I don’t deal with those who disagree,” she told Phil Donahue in 1980 after responding bitchily to a former acolyte in the audience who said she had turned away from Rand’s teachings. “I would love to see an honorable adversary, but I’ve stopped hoping for it. They’re not honorable in their ideas. If she’s parted from my writings, that’s her loss, not mine. She doesn’t have to bring it to me.”
No, Rand didn’t brook disagreement with much pleasantry, and labeled dissenters from her ideas “immoral” and worse. Those were not the only similarities linking Rand’s rhetoric and ideas with the political and (especially) religious leaders she held in such ill regard. “Don’t follow leaders – and don’t become one,” demanded her philosophy (Galt refused to “rule” even when begged) … yet she commanded such fealty from her followers that she insisted they call themselves “Students of Objectivism,” even as she claimed the title of “Objectivist” solely for herself. “Stop believing what the mystics teach you – think for yourself,” Galt commands … in the middle of a three-hour lecture insisting that the only “rational” thoughts are his own kind.
And then there’s the key plotline of Atlas Shrugged – the mysterious vanishing of Randian industrialists, and the ensuing tribulations of those lesser (and in most cases “immoral”) men who have been … left behind. (Ayn Rand and Timothy LaHaye, mentioned in the same breath … only on Popdose!) Yes, it’s Rand’s own Rapture, with Galt as the Redeemer who has been martyred by tyrants via torture (though, in keeping with his creed placing primacy on his love of his own life, he doesn’t bother to die) — only to return just in time to reclaim Earth in the name of … reason and selfishness. Well, it’s not a perfect analogy, but it works well enough that it must have been intentional … right? Perhaps composer Richard Halley’s “Concerto of Deliverance” should have been titled “Concerto of Revelations.”
I briefly worried, while beginning this long-winded column, that I might have trouble finding a persuasive example of the manner in which Rand’s absolutism falls apart upon close examination – in which entirely rational people balance self-interest and altruism on a day-to-day basis. Then a high-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on Tuesday, devastating that nation’s capital city and leaving thousands dead, perhaps hundreds of thousands homeless. How many millions of people with no relatives and no economic interest in Haiti will nevertheless write checks to charity in the coming days — in amounts they can afford without bankrupting themselves? How many millions more simply smile with hope and reassurance upon hearing their governments’ leaders promise swift logistical, nutritional and financial help to the people of Haiti – help they can provide thanks to taxpayer dollars?
Thinking about the Haitian quake, in turn, made me think about Roberto Clemente, the baseball great (and Puerto Rico native) who responded so valiantly after the Nicaraguan capital was struck by an earthquake in December 1971. Clemente could hardly have placed a particularly high “value” on the “virtues” of a nation and a people that were not his own – certainly not the same value he placed on his own identity and heritage, when he demanded that baseball writers and fans stop calling him “Bobby” and use his real name. But he recognized “need” when he saw it, and saw a duty (born of the intrinsic value he placed in humanity as a whole) to use his time and his resources to help. He quickly organized three relief flights – and when he learned that the supplies were being diverted from the people who needed them, he decided to accompany the fourth plane himself. Never mind the disastrous outcome of that flight – Clemente’s decision merely to fly to Nicaragua was an act of self-sacrifice, and a breaching of his own “rational self-interest,” that Rand, from my reading of her, probably wouldn’t have approved.
Clemente, for his charity and altruism as much as for his glorious baseball career, is a hero to millions. So is Ayn Rand, to other people for very different reasons. You’ll forgive me if, in the final analysis, I choose to exalt Clemente … and if I exalt a government that has the means and the mandate to provide some relief to the people of Haiti, and maybe even ensure some access to health care for uninsured people in our own land.
By the way, guess who was the first celebrity to book a flight for Port-au-Prince this week? It was Angelina “I Wanna Play Dagny Taggart” Jolie! (Ah, altruism…) If you guessed correctly, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. Nobody needs that much self-esteem.