Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Real Ayn Rand

Can we once and for all clear up the political misappropriation of Ayn Rand? I've heard her themes characterized as everything from the foundation of libertarianism to 8th grade twaddle. I disagree with both assessments. If anything, Rand may be a New Age writer with her message of being true to yourself, seeking happiness and personal fulfillment, and living an authentic life. But above all, she is not a neoconservative.

Rand is an INTJ rational personality type, a practical creator of worlds (I am as well). Rand's two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are most commonly cited when talking about her beliefs. In each, the world Rand wants is a meritocracy.

She envisions a very practical world. Everyone does what s/he is best suited for, and the best (talent + hard work) become the most successful. She envisions the producers, creators, and natural leaders of the world as the richest, most successful people, but that's not the end of it. All others who are willing to take their natural places in this society are welcome and respected, be they financiers or janitors.

This is a critical addition. What she envisions is opportunity for everyone to the limits of their abilities--a healthy middle class. In purely practical terms, producers need employees, and those employees need to earn enough to be consumers. Her architect protagonist designs an affordable and very successful summer resort for people of "good taste and small income" and a low-rent housing project as well as skyscrapers and estate homes. There is no sense that only the captains of industry are worthy humans--quite the opposite.

In The Fountainhead, published in 1943, she contrasts an architect (Howard Roark) who lives a authentic life with a woman who knows what to do but doesn't quite have his courage, a man who sought the wrong thing in life, a man who is clueless, and a man who has consciously set out to subjugate the masses. Over the course of the novel, the architect interacts with all of these people. He helps the ones who want to improve to improve by filling in the gaps in their understanding; he dismisses the one who doesn't want help.

The format is a novelized version of philosophy books in which a teacher instructs students in The Way by talking about the ideal way to approach different situations presented by students. The New Testament uses this technique, and Gurdjieff and Ousspensky, two Russian philosophers contemporaneous with Russian emigre Rand, used this Q&A format in their writings.

How she treats these students says much about her philosophy.

Dominique knows what she needs to do to live an authentic life but fears the cruelty of public opinion--fears what the public swine would do to pearls. She needs to learn to not care so much about what others think and do. She learns this by seeing what the public does to Howard for much of the book--and helping them do it in some cases--and seeing that it doesn't faze him.

Gail became a powerful newspaper editor by pandering to the masses. He wanted power so that he would never be at the mercy of incompetence. Instead, he realizes that he has become a slave to the masses rather than their master. By pandering, he subverted himself. It's as if Roger Ailes suddenly couldn't bear the thought that he created Fox News and the Tea Party. Gail's only way out is to walk away from it all and close the paper. After once being unable to do it, he finally does, though he can never forgive himself the moment of weakness.

Peter is a successful mediocre architect. The things he's told he should want--money, promotions, recognition--aren't fulfilling, but he can't bring himself to stop pursuing them. Over the course of the story, Peter passes up chance after chance to be true to himself. He becomes a broken man.

Ellsworth simply wants to rule the world--and says so late in the story. He enjoys the ability to make and break people. He intimidates people into doubting their own opinions and following his, then turns that following into a movement. He pulls the strings at both conservative and liberal publications to better manage public opinion. He is annoyed that Howard can be successful on the basis of his talent and despite public disapproval--but downright infuriated that Howard doesn't give a thought to Ellsworth (a great line in the book).

Universality is a key test of any philosphy. Those that don't pass the test can still be discussed; they are, of course, not as good as the philosophies that pass all the tests and could actually be adopted across a population.

In addition to the INTJ systems builder, there are people whose natural orientation is to game any system that confronts them. These people would not be welcome in Ayn Rand's world, which points to a gaping flaw in her vision--it doesn't fit all people.

The lack of universality doesn't seem to bother Rand. After all, a core belief of her philosophy is to not worry about what others think. She would be happy to take a group of like-minded people and start a colony.

I suspect that fringe right-wing groups glommed on to her notion of starting a new colony and decided that she was one of them. She's not.

Why Ayn Rand is no Icon of the Right

Rand considered it a duty to consider the facts and think for ourselves. The Right operates by intimidating people into submission using media and false data.

Rand wanted a meritocracy. The Right uses artificial criteria like race and religion to value people. The Right elevates unworthy people into leadership positions. The Right has dumbed down the educational system and introduced No Child Left Behind.

Rand wanted a free market, but like Alan Greenspan (another INTJ) she assumed that everyone would understand that the long-term sustainability of the market was worth more than short-term looting. The Right wants to bestow unfair competitive advantages to looters.

Rand wanted an efficient world with a healthy middle class. The Right wants to kill the middle class--literally, sometimes.

In fact, Ayn Rand has a lot to say against the Right in the character of Ellsworth Toohey, the evil mastermind who appears to be a harmless toady but develops and exploits people's weaknesses.
  • He stirs up "the Bible brigade" to tear down a beautiful building
  • He gets a drama critic fired. When asked, "What's the matter with Jimmy Kearns?...He's got a mind. Smart as a whip," Toohey answers, "He's got a mind--of his own. I don't think you want any whips around the place--except the one you hold."
  • Over time, he assembles a core staff at the paper that is loyal to him and eventually follows him on strike. Strikebreakers are physically assaulted.
  • When Gail shows signs of having a conscience in his editorials, Ellsworth arranges for a rich fringe wacko to buy a big chunk of The Banner, Gail's paper.
  • Ellsworth arranges for one of his own talentless former proteges to invest in a liberal magazine, at which Ellsworth pulls the strings. This magazine attacks the conservative Banner and publishes things too offensive even for The Banner.
  • Ellsworth always has a facile explanation for the things he does that convinces people his intentions are good even if the results are not.
  • He holds up to scorn and ridicule talented people and those who support them.
  • He champions untalented people who will do what he says. These people go on to become recognized experts in their various fields, quoted for talking nonsense. Someone says, "Most of the boys that count in every office are his boys."
  • He plants suggestions that his followers carry out, including rumor campaigns against the talented and those who oppose him.
  • He makes public pronouncements like "Freedom and compulsion are one."
At one point, Dominique tells Gail he should fire Ellsworth:
It's not his popularity. It's the special nature of it. You can't fight him on his terms. You're only a tank--and that's an...honest weapon that goes first, out in front, and mows everything down or takes every counterblow. He's a corrosive gas. The kind that eats lungs out. I think there really is a secret to the core of evil, and he has it....I know how he uses it and what he's after...control of the world. [Gail scoffs] I'll try to explain. It's very difficult. The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see. But if you'll listen......
But he doesn't listen.

Random quotes:
Jules Fougler [the drama critic who replaced Jimmy Kearns] had not tried to influence anybody; he had merely made clear--well in advance and through many channels--that anybody unable to enjoy this play was, basically, a worthless human being. "It's no use asking for explanations," he had said. "Either you're fine enough to like it, or you aren't."

...there had always been a God and a Devil--only men had been so mistaken about the shapes of their Devil--he was not single and big, he was many and smutty and small.

Do you know what you're actually in love with? Integrity. The impossible. The clean, consistent, reasonable, self-faithful...

What we love about these buildings [NY skyscrapers] is the creative faculty, the heroic in man.
He was a very young man....He thought only that he wished to find joy and reason and meaning in life....Don't work for my happiness, my brothers--show me yours--show me that it is possible--show me your achievement--and the knowledge will give me courage for mine.

Howard, have you ever held power over a single human being?
No. And I wouldn't take it if it were offered to me....It was offered to me once. I refused it....out of respect for myself.
[From the rich wacko] People make too damn much fuss about freedom. I think people would be much happier in a regulated society that had a definite pattern and a unified form...what makes people unhappy is not having too little choice, but too much. Having to decide, always to decide, torn every which way all of the time. Now, in a society of pattern, a man could feel safe.

[From Ellsworth, when asked how he came to be so influential so fast] It's much simpler than it appears...because you think in personalities...But dear me, the lifetimes of a hundred press agents wouldn't be enough. It can be done much faster....if you want something to grow, you don't nurture each seed separately. You just spread a certain fertilizer. Nature will do the rest [he later makes the same analogy using weeding and herbicide]....People go by so many erroneous assumptions. For instance, that old one--divide and conquer. Well, it has its applications. But it remained for our century to discover a much more potent formula. Unite and rule. [no, it's not a new invention, but the point is there]
Gail had known for several years the trend which his paper had embraced gradually, imperceptibly, without any directive from him. He had noticed the cautious "slanting" of news stories, the half-hints, the vague allusions, the peculiar adjectives peculiarly placed, the stressing of certain themes, the insertion of political conclusions where none was needed....In the course of his career, he had been the greatest publishers of his time, by the shrewdest coalitions of financial power. He could not summon any apprehension over the activities of somebody named Gus Webb [one of Ellsworth's "boys"].

[Howard:] Actual's his ego he's betrayed and given up....And isn't that the root of every despicable action?...Look at them. The man who cheats and lies but preserves a respectable front....the man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own....the frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison....Now I don't see anything evil in a desire to make money. But money is only a means to some end....but the men who place money first go much beyond that....What they want impress others....A truly selfish man cannot be affeted by the approval of others. He doesn't need it. [Gail:] That's what helps him [Ellsworth] spread his vicious nonsense. Just weakness and cowardice. It's so easy to run to others....there is no substitute for competence. That, precisely, is the deadliness of second-handers. They have no concern for facts, ideas, work...they don't ask: "Is this true?" They ask: "Is this what others think is true?"...Not creation but show. Not ability but friendship. Not merit but pull...Their reality is not within them,...but a relation--anchored to nothing....Men without an ego. Opinion without a rational process....Power without can't reason with him. He's not open to reason....a blind beast running amuck to crush you without sense or purpose.

[Ellsworth on how to subjugate the masses]
Kill man's sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or achieve it. Great men can't be ruled. We don't want any great men. Don't deny the concept of greatness. Destroy it from within...Don't set out to raze all shrines--you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity--and the shrines are razed.....Men have a weapon against you. Reason. So you must be very sure to take it away from them. Cut the props from under it. But be careful. Don't deny outright. Never deny anything outright, you give your hand away...Just say that reason is limited. That there's something above it...he must try not to think, he must feel. He must believe....Can you rule a thinking man? We don't want any thinking men....Let progress stop. Let all stagnate.

This last speech goes a long way toward explaining why so many people felt powerless while Bush was president (mediocrity elected if not quite enshrined).

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