"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ayn Rand the Great American Nightmare (Sunday, June 5, 2011)

I was delighted to discover recently that there actually is a biological model known as “survival of the nicest”. A recent study by Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico looked at data from a variety of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, including the aborigines of Australia and the Inuits in Siberia. It turns out that members of these different groups were much more closely related to one another than previously thought. Furthermore, Bowles concluded, altruistic behavior among group members in previous generations tended to improve the overall fitness of the group as a whole. It made them stronger, better able to survive, and more likely to engage in altruistic behavior in the future. Goodness abides, and survives. Our sacrifice strengthens those for whom we give up something of ourselves.
Nor are we alone in our altruistic behavior. The family dog may seem to have the best job in the world: he doesn’t have to worry about saving some of his kibble for the cat, or for us, or for generations of dogs yet unborn. She can gobble it all down with carefree abandon.
But the fact of the matter is that nature otherwise sings with examples of animal altruism. Even the beasts of the field and the birds of the air do not (always) live for themselves alone. Dogs often adopt and care for other, orphaned dogs—and even care for orphaned cats, squirrels, and ducks as well. Remember Flipper? Dolphins often support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours at a time and pushing them to the surface so they can breathe. Even wolves and wild dogs bring meat back to the members of the pack not present at the kill.

So, too, our human story sings with noble examples of heroism and self-sacrifice. We do not remember fondly those of our race who hoarded what they had and lived for themselves alone. No, it is those who gave of themselves so that our human story could enter its next chapter that we laud as heroes.
So, too, the teaching of compassion lies close to the heart of the world’s religions. Live in sympathy for all living things without exception, the Buddha taught. Practice tzedakah—charity—Judaism commands. Zakat—the giving of alms—is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. And Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this,  that he lay down his life for his friends.”

What are we to make of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, then, best summarized, perhaps, in the words of John Galt, the hero of her masterwork, Atlas Shrugged: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”?

We could readily dismiss Rand’s extreme brand of libertarianism on steroids as an aberration, were it not so prevalent. Her individualism gone mad would be almost laughable were it not so toxic. Her dystopian vision of the future would be hardly worthy of consideration, were it not, in fact, a major component of current practice in American society today, whatever lip service might be paid to other, higher ideals.
In the late 1960s, the Book of the Month Club ran a survey of which books its members considered most influential. At the top of the list was the Bible. Number two on the list was Atlas Shrugged. Between that choice, perhaps, lies the battle for the soul of Western civilization.

Atlas Shrugged  takes place in the United States, at some indeterminate point in the future. American society has ceased to function because of the heavy hand of the government over all aspects of life. In the face of this dysfunction, all of the most creative industrialists, scientists, and artists go on strike and retreat to a mountainous hideaway, where they build an independent, free and functioning economy. According to the novel’s hero, John Galt, the strike seeks to “stop the motor of the world” by withdrawing the contributions of those who contribute most to the nation’s wealth and achievement. Without these titans of commerce and creativity, according to Galt, society would cease to function; in his view, only a society which allows untrammeled, unregulated freedom to such individual creativity can grow and prosper. In a long speech toward the end of the book (80 pages long in the first edition), Galt presents the basic ideas of Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism”.
With Rand’s reputation preceding it, Atlas Shrugged sold very well. Within days of its publication in 1957, it was at sixth place on the New York Times best-seller list, where it would remain for 21 weeks. (It eventually sold more than 25 million copies, with average sales currently still at about 500,000 units per year). But Atlas Shrugged was generally disliked by critics, despite being a popular success. One critic called it  “an homage to greed” and Gore Vidal described its philosophy as "nearly perfect in its immorality". Writing in The Saturday Review, Helen Beal Woodward wrote that the novel was "shot through with hatred." So, too, Granville Hicks, writing for The New York Times Book Review also stated that the book was "written out of hate." The reviewer for Time magazine asked: "Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare?” and likened it to a Superman comic book.  In a letter to a friend who had said she was reading the book, the author Flannery O’Connor wrote: "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail."

Perhaps the most biting, and (in my opinion) the most insightful, criticism came from the anti-Communist hero Whittaker Chambers , writing in William F. Buckley’s National Review.

For Chambers' full review see:

Besides lambasting the book as literature—Chambers called it “sophomoric" and "remarkably silly". Chambers pointed to the potential evil that a philosophy like Rand’s could wrought:
“In this fiction,” Chambers writes, “everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly…. [This is] the War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness… The Children of Light are geniuses… [and] breathtakingly beautiful… The Children of Darkness are caricatures, too; and they are really oozy. But at least they are caricatures of something identifiable. Their archetypes are the Left Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogresh semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little of people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies.”
As Chambers points out—neither Left nor Right has a monopoly on such nightmare peddlers, “though the horrors in their nightmares wear radically different masks and labels.” Communism on the left and Fascism on the right might claim to stand for widely different ideologies, but in practice, they appear uncannily similar.

For, Chambers presciently realized, in the selfish, atheist, I-will-live-for-myself-and-the-world-be-damned vision she presents in Atlas Shrugged, Rand might well be laying the groundwork for a new dystopia, a new totalitarianism—one to which, I fear, we now draw closer than to any of the discredited Twentieth Century collectivisms of Left or Right, which now lie largely discredited on the ash heap of history.
One of those who did not pan Atlas Shrugged when it first appeared was a young academic, an economist named Allen Greenspan. In a letter to the New York Times, to counter its negative review, Greenspan wrote: “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”
“Randian man, like Marxian man [or like the German Volk in Hitler’s vision for that matter] is made the center of a godless world," Whittaker Chambers wrote, and he continued that Rand’s implicit message was akin to "Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism", which could be summed up in the phrase: "To a gas chamber -- go!"
It was Ayn Rand’s atheism that bothered Chambers most. (And that bothered his publisher, William F. Buckley, Jr., who chose Chambers to write the review.) It is said that when Rand first made Buckley’s acquaintance in the 1940s, one of the first things she said to him was “Come now, Bill, a man as intelligent as you can’t really believe in God!”

As a staunch Catholic, it was a statement of arrogance for which Buckley never forgave her. Buckley (and Chambers) were reasonable enough to understand that you could not be both a Christian and a follower of Ayn Rand; you could not affirm the narrow selfishness of Atlas Shrugged and seek to live your life according to the values of the Gospels.  (That is a distinction that many of the current members of the Republican Right and the Tea Party Movement, who profess to be both admirers of Rand and Christian Conservatives at the same time, seem too ideologically schizophrenic, or maybe just plain ignorant, to be able to make.)
For in Rand’s vision—where there are no greater values than those of the market—where the good life “has resolved personal worth into exchange value”—where there is “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’”—then everything is permissible which seeks these ends, including the devaluation of everything else that really matters—of relationships and community and family and faith—all lie in waste in the name of greater and greater profits for the economic elite.
Whatever the tentative and tepid attempts at reform by our previous administration, we as a society are moving steadily toward the vision which Ayn Rand preached. Since 1980 (when Ronald Reagan, another professed follower of Ayn Rand, became President) the income share of the upper 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the top 0.1% has quadrupled. Meanwhile, the average worker’s wage has declined, in terms of actual purchasing power, adjusted for inflation, by 11% since 1973, even though productivity has risen 78% during that same period.
According to recently released census data, for the first time in American history, children now are less educated than their parents; earn less money; are less likely to own a home. The American Dream is becoming the Great American Nightmare for too many Americans, in the face of the juggernaut of laissez faire capitalism.

What is the response of Ayn Rand fans like Congressman Paul Ryan to this iniquity and injustice? A proposed federal budget that would give the wealthiest Americans another three trillion dollars in tax relief, and cut programs for the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, and the rest of us, by an equal amount.

Another interesting thing that Whittaker Chambers points out in his review of Atlas Shrugged is that there are no children in the brave new world which Galt and his Beautiful People create off in the mountains. That’s not a surprise, I suppose.
For it is our children who teach us, most of all, about the messiness of life. About how we can’t have it our own way all the time, and that we do not live for ourselves alone. That life—real life—is all about self-sacrifice. And that it is our sacrifice which makes this life worth living.
“You're not your job,” one of the characters in the film Fight Club tells his comrades.  “You're not how much money you have in the bank.  You're not the car you drive.  You're not the contents of your wallet.  You're not [the clothes you wear].  You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”
Life in this world is never perfect. Anyone who tells you they have a plan to make it so—especially by devaluing some other group of people—is selling you a bill of goods, and probably a very dangerous one.

Of all the quotes I’ve read from Ayn Rand, there is one, at least, with which I agree: “The spread of evil is the symptom of a vacuum; whenever evil wins, it is always by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles.”
May these be our basic principles:
Politically and economically, we are part of a commonwealth with one another. May we do what we can to leave that imperfect commonwealth a little better than we found it.
Spiritually and mystically, we are part of an interdependent web of creation with all living creatures. May we strive to live our lives so that that web is strengthened by our presence, and not weakened.
And we do not live for ourselves alone. The gifts of our lives and the wealth they produce are meant to be shared. May we pour forth our spirit and our talents and share them as widely as we may, as the One who created us has poured forth in such abundance the free gifts of divine love and mercy upon us.