by James Valliant
Ayn Rand is hot right now. Sizzling hot. As government grows more intrusive, and our freedom shrinks, her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are selling at an unprecedented clip. Given today’s headlines, it is easy to see why.
Less easy to understand is the remarkable level of ignorance about Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism.
Can anyone doubt the truth of writer David Mamet’s recent comments about arguing politics? Defining what he meant by “Brain Dead Liberalism,” he suggested that unless you can state your opponent’s position with such accuracy that he or she would agree, “Yes, that’s what I think,” no meaningful debate is even possible. The left’s inability to meet this requirement, he explained to Andrew Napolitano on his show Freedom Watch, helped move him to the political right.
Yet, in the case of Ayn Rand, this is precisely what has been missing.
I am not referring to the ignorance of Al Lewis, author of “Call It Atlas Snubbed,” which appeared in The Wall Street Journal (Sunday edition, July 17, 2011). Despite Lewis’ claims, Atlas Shrugged does, and vividly, “imagine executives [who] loot[ed] their shareholders, cause an economic crisis and then beg for government help.” And, as those who have actually read the novel know, Rand did envision government “coming to the rescue” of failing businesses.
Nor do I mean Steve Mariotti, author of “Remembering Ayn Rand,” which ran at The Huffington Post (April 21, 2011), who recalled a seminude portrait (for which Rand never posed), the novelist blowing smoke in his face (long after she had quit) and (who could forget?) those “bright green eyes.”
No, I’m not talking about the typical hit piece on which some writers seem to cut their teeth – such sources are dismissed out of hand by most of Rand’s admirers. The sources I mean, whether from the right or the left, are among the most intelligent writers of our time.
On the left, for example, we have the spectacle of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant writer and a keen observer whom I find infinitely more interesting than your average, one-trick pony libertarian. According to Hitchens, Rand’s thought is “easy” to refute, but, somehow, he cannot summon the capacity to identify her ideas at all, much less meet the Mamet standard. In a 2001 article (“The Obligatory Proto-Capitalist Worldview: Ayn Rand,” Business 2.0, August 2001), Hitchens selectively quoted from various people who claimed to admire Rand, at least at some point in their past. Isn’t that enough? Folks like businessman Larry Ellison, who decried Microsoft’s “monopoly”(!)
Hitchens writes of “the pitiless and materialistic philosophy” of Rand, and claims that she had “cold contempt for all ideas of charity and compassion.” Rand, who practiced various forms of charity herself, was also no materialist – in any sense of the term, whether ethical, psychological, economic or metaphysical.
Now, of course, one might believe that her ideas ultimately lead to or must reduce to some form of “materialism,” but this requires an argument. And one must at least account for Rand’s own argumentation against (and explicit rejection of) materialism – whatever sense of the term is meant.
On the right, we have Charles Murray. In a review of the two recent biographies of Rand (“Who is Ayn Rand? A review of Goddess of the Market Goddess of the Market, by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller,” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2010), he boldly asserts that “everything in Objectivism is derivative of ideas that thinkers from John Locke to Adam Smith to Friedrich Nietzsche had expressed before.” Of Rand’s novels, he asserts, they “have only a loose relationship with Objectivism as a philosophy (which was formally developed only after the novels were written).” He continues:
“Are selfishness and greed cardinal virtues in Objectivism? Who cares? Does Objectivist aesthetics denigrate Bach and Mozart? Who cares? Objectivism has nothing to do with what mesmerizes people about The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.”
This stuff takes irresponsible ignorance to dizzying new heights. If Murray hadn’t written anything else one would be forced to judge the man a shoddy sophomore scholar writing a semi-cribbed term paper.
Both of the biographers who Murray praises make so many basic mistakes about Objectivism that they cannot be listed easily. Neither author demonstrates an understanding of Rand’s thought adequate to receive a passing grade in a 101 course, much less meet the Mamet Test. And neither author has an intuitive feel for Rand’s art.
Both authors claim, for instance, that Rand’s fictional heroes possess “Aryan” features. Yes, Ayn Rand – that passionate enemy of totalitarianism in all of its forms who fled from European dictatorship – is smeared in this repulsive fashion by both writers. Rand, who published work as early as the 1930s that attacked racism explicitly, is so defamed. Never mind all of the counterexamples to their assertion, e.g., the dark haired Latin hero Francisco d’Anconia from Atlas Shrugged, or the orange haired Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. Never mind the explicit awareness of similar smears of Rand by Whittaker Chambers exhibited by these biographers. They permit themselves that degree of ugliness, and, to the shattering of Murray’s own credibility, he trusts both of these writers completely and implicitly. Having read the novels, of course, he should have known better. All three writers stand that far from any understanding of Rand’s basic thought and actual psychology.
Despite Murray’s claims, the novels explicate, dramatize and depict nearly every fundamental principle of Rand’s philosophy (with the exception of her theory of concepts developed in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.)
Ever heard this one? “I love the novels of Ayn Rand. They said what I thought all of my life.” I must confess, I felt something similar after first reading the novels. To be sure, even then I recognized that many subtle implications of the story still escaped me. But nothing prepared me for the revolution I was to experience as I delved deeper into Rand’s thought. It seems that I had altogether missed ideas which, upon subsequent readings, were there, plain as day. In fact, Rand’s theory of emotions, her metaphysical axioms, her “metaethics” were all there. It just took the guidance of professional philosophers and multiple readings of her work to see it all.
Thus, to the serious student of Rand’s thought, Murray’s assertion about the relationship between Rand’s ideas and her fiction shows just how superficial his understanding of Objectivism remains, comparable to, say, that of the typical teenaged reader.
To some extent, this is Rand’s own fault. She made it look so easy. So skillfully does this sorceress of language demonstrate her case, its logical structure is often completely invisible to the casual reader. However, even as a student, I could detect a vast iceberg of implications beneath what I was able to pick up on my own. Later, after a course of study with some of Rand’s own students, what I had missed became obvious. It was right there in black and white – how could I have been so blind?
True, I have taken advantage of the growing secondary literature on the subject—but Murray could have, as well. His total ignorance of the work of Leonard Peikoff, Allan Gotthelf, Harry Binswanger, Andrew Bernstein and Tara Smith, just to name a sample, is inexcusable for someone who has taken to making such ludicrous assertions about Rand’s ideas.
Still worse, Murray thinks of Rand’s powerfully original thought as warmed over Locke and updated Nietzsche. Anyone familiar with those two thinkers will see an immediate tension. A Nietzschean, “beyond good and evil,” who advocates natural rights? Is that even possible? Well, only for a Nietzschean who rejects every aspect of his “perspectivist” epistemology and anti-principled “ethics,” and one who, unlike Nietzsche himself, actually has a political theory. John Locke was a Christian, hardly an egoist, and Rand rejected his epistemology completely. Even within liberal politics, Rand made vital corrections to the thinking of Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. And all of this is what enabled her to soar to new heights of radicalism.
Rand’s dislike for certain composers of music may not be there, but this not a philosophical principle. Rand’s full blown case for egoism is there, along with a careful set of distinctions about what she means by “selfishness” that Murray, it seems, doesn’t think important enough to mention. Apparently, this concept of selfishness purpose and passion has nothing whatever to do with the characterizations of her fictional heroes, either. Yet, what actually “mesmerized” me about Rand’s novels can be summed up in a single word, “Objectivism.” Obviously, it is her ideas that power the effect of her literature on her millions of fans. Nothing else.
Objectivism is thus the key to understanding the popularity of Atlas Shrugged. That is what makes the soul of Dagny Taggart sexy – that’s what makes Francisco’s humor funny – and that’s what makes a mystery as to why a bum should have intelligent eyes so compelling. That is what makes her work no less than prophetic.
If Rand were not morally principled, she would have had no impact in politics whatever. (Rand’s approach to moral principles is ably explicated by the aforementioned Professor Tara Smith in her 2006 treatise Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: the Virtuous Egoist [Cambridge University Press.]) If Rand had not been a fierce opponent of metaphysical dualism, to take another example, she could not have written a single page of Atlas Shrugged.
By the same token, if Rand’s ideas were not present in their most controversial form, Whittaker Chambers could not have attacked her magnum opus so mendaciously in his infamous 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged for the conservative National Review magazine, the father of Ayn Rand hit pieces.
No, someone does not need to agree with Objectivism in order to understand it. At least, in theory anyway. Yet, so far, the critics of Rand who have simply demonstrated an accurate understanding of her philosophy are practically non existent.
Both Murray and Hitchens are brilliant men, and despite all of their errors, they are among the best writers on their respective political sides. Yet, what these men just plain got wrong about Rand’s philosophy could fill a volume, well, the size of Atlas Shrugged. I respect both men enough to believe that they would ascribe to the “Mamet Test,” in some form. However, and as any Objectivist could tell them, they utterly fail to meet that test.
— James Stevens Valliant is a former deputy district attorney for San Diego County and the author of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics. (Durban House, 2005)