I’ve been wanting to write something for quite sometime about Ayn Rand, but wanted to do it well, which has always prevented me from starting. So in giving up that ideal, I allow myself to rant instead. Driven by bitterness of articles like these, which are constant.
From Salon: Ayn Rand is for Children
“Since I first met Objectivists (read: libertarians) in college, my Unified Theory of Rand Groupies posited that they all probably fit into at least one of three groups: those who 1) never grew out of the usual “the world is persecuting me and doesn’t see my true genius” phase that momentarily afflicts the typical high schooler 2) think saying “Ayn Rand” in any context makes them sound intelligent, even though they’ve never actually read her work or 3) have read Rand’s work, don’t genuinely believe in her ideology as evidenced by their lifestyle/politics, but still say they love her because it serves to make them feel good about their own avarice……As Saunders’ personal story suggests, my theory about Randists fails in not accounting for the fourth and arguably biggest subgroup of all: those who have never visited the developing world”
The two sides of those who love her or hate her are equally fascinating – and despite her writings and ideologies not fitting nicely into the American political parties – but yet the conservatives tend to claim her as their own, and liberals tend to revile her. And I see very few arguments for either side that make sense to me. As an unabashed progressive, I find inspiration in her writings, precisely because I have visited and lived in the developing world. However, I also recognize that just like any writer/philosopher, she, and her ideas are flawed. Does this discredit everything she said? I find liberals’ preoccupation bordering on obsession that she took social security checks as a way to discredit her writing using just the same tacticts that Conservatives use – discredit the person rather than their ideas. So, lets move onto those ideas:
Meaning of Money:
Perhaps the biggest misperception is that the United States in its current form is the utopia that Rand made famous in Atlas Shrugged – a place where the people of talent withdrew from a thankless society that took advantage of them. Money is not what defined these people, but talent. In an ideal world, as Rand defines it, money is used as a bartering system which would reflect that talent. Money in and of itself is not a value, money is symbolic for creativity and accomplishment. Bank executives in today’s world, like HSBC, AIG, etc. that lied to the public, laundered money by drug dealers in Mexico, and sold subprime mortgages and led their companies to bankruptcy for their ineptitude would not be heroes in Rand’s novels. They would be despised for living life mooching off others’ true talent. They are not producers of anything, and obtained a living through lying. Its the fallacy in today’s world that people get their wealth through honest means, thus rich people are more talented, deserving, because they achieved it through a hard days work. Right? “Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants; money will not give him a code of values….Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward or the respect for the incompetent.” (382 Atlas Shrugged) “When you have made evil the means of survival, do not expect men to remain good. Do not expect them to stay moral and lose their lives for the purpose of becoming the fodder of the immoral. /do not expect them to produce, when production is punished and looting rewarded.” (384 Atlas Shrugged).
And this, I think is the crux of the problem. While it is true that Ayn Rand escaped the Soviet Union and fled the United States and idealized a capitalist system that supposedly could reward talent – the writing can speak for itself. Without writing the whole book in quotes, the main theme is that people who make money through fraud – are fraud. Money doesn’t give people virtue. Production, using talent creatively, is what she admires.
When we look at the sheer amount of corruption, and alliances between government and corporations, its easy to see that the current system if a far cry from a utopia where money is a reflection of talent. In fact, the system is almost completely inverted. Most the top finanacial executives have had some kind of government payout, rotate between government and private sector positions, cementing in the power that only non talent can achieve. The world as we know it does not reward talent and creativity, hence the creation of a utopia to escape the world of cronyism and political favors that rewards corruption and incompetence. Her utopia is not America today. Her utopia is escaping the kind of reality we currently live in.
One of the biggest debates on Rand’s novels is are they a blueprint for society, or for an individual. Her most famous works – Atlas Shrugged, Fountainhead, and We the Living, are far more concerned with individual behavior and a establishing a code of ethics. Take her classic character, Roark, who was a talented architect who pursued his dream and love of building, and decided he would only be paid for building his own buildings he designed. The challenge in this, is that not every situation is so clear cut as to being a sellout or not, but then again, the biggest social justice issues are more blatant and always being concerned with the shades of grey can obscure the important issues and divide coalitions. Back to the point though. Her non fiction books talk more about politics and economic systems. But if people try to argue that its obvious to glean that her many fiction works represent what society is, and how society should be rather than an individual’s struggle in a corrupt system, than I think that’s false. Also, referring back to the first paragraph’s characterization of people who like Rand, is to identify with her characters as ‘tortured artists’ this is also a misunderstanding. None of them were tortured artists struggling to be understood. They didn’t give a shit about who understood them, and who didn’t. In fact, that’s probably one of the single most important things of her books is that it doesn’t matter what other people think of you, and the fact that people care, is their biggest failing.
Fountainhead’s character, Wynand, was the opposite of Roark, and more resembles the current Conservative ideal persona. Wynand was rich, powerful, and talented, but ultimately the tragic case of Fountainhead because instead of pursuing his passion, he wasted his talents to form a media empire that wrote degrading articles, and bashed everything he truly admired. Thus his riches and power came at the cost of his dignity and true happiness. Roark, on the other hand refused to be a sellout. One of my favorite quotes is from the Fountainhead: “To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. It is what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul, would you understand why that’s much harder?” Wynand, despite being the head of a media empire, was not the hero, he sold his soul. While Roark, the poor artist, who kept his dignity and morals, was the hero. This sounds like a liberal fairytale, why is it so despised? Maybe because most have not read it.
Despite personally being inspired by Rand, the part I disagree with her writings is about oppression. She writes about it in a few of her books, but fails to acknowledge the widespread injustice and violence that affect and hinder people from succeeding in life.
We the Living, one of Rand’s first novels, and the closest to an autobiography is set in Communist Russia, and tells of the tragic tale of an amazing man Leo that is forced into looting and thievery due to the oppressive regime that stifled the human spirit. The girl continues to love him, despite being married to someone else, for the only goal of getting enough money from her husband to help out Leo. She dies unheroicly in the end, trying to escape the oppressive regime that crushed her and her lover’s soul. It is not much of a leap that to say that if oppression in the form of a government can stifle the human spirit, then so might crushing poverty, or that violence can also prevent the next Leo from achieving their potential. Because as Rand recognizes in We the Living is that outside forces matter, and tragically, waste the most talented among us.
While Rand would not support the kind of initiatives for equality and social justice that someone like myself might generally be drawn to; however, neither would she support the fraudulent system that rewards corruption and ineptitude, a system that instead of nurturing talent, the Roarks of the world are destined to starve and work in areas not of passion but necessity. It is the latter that I see myself inspired by Rand, to work for social justice. The amount of talent and achievement that is wasted because someone did not have the money to attend a good school. Or that school was destroyed by civil war. Or that young child didn’t get proper healthcare and died of pneumonia. Or whopping cough. or… Who is John Galt? Oh, he was shot on his way to work for union organizing. As Rand suggests, you can’t fake reality. And the reality is that horrible things happen every single day. If the overriding principle of objectivism holds that ones achievements and self esteem are the purpose of ones life, than that is not incompatible with a just society. In fact, it is a reason for it. While much of conservative thought focuses less on the end goals but rather the process, Rand gives a vision to conservatives what that vision should look like. And that vision is not as incompatible with liberal values as one might think. Objectivism, as I see it, should be a vision to motivate advocating for a peaceful and just society. Because humans are amazing! Not because they are pathetic and weak.
So in temporary conclusion, I think Ayn Rand gives great examples of what greatness in an individual looks like. But she does not give credence in most of her books the extent of influence of outside factors that affect that greatness.
So much more to write. To be continued.