Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fountainhead of failure: Ayn Rand, her cult, and the moral absolutism of American conservatism

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Other than the obvious tyrants and totalitarians, there are few people in the history of the world I loathe more than Ayn Rand. Sure, I read her propaganda when I was in high school, and found much of it appealing. (It is, after all, pop philosophy for self-absorbed adolescent males.) But then I grew up, and out of it, and I quickly came to see her for what she was, and remains: a despicable egotist, a cult of personality at the head of a cult loyally attended by intellectually retarded submissives who fashioned themselves, like their mistress, members, subject to her whims, of an extra-special elite that, as they saw it, set them apart from, and above, the rest of society. (Although they, like her, were more like precocious college freshmen who read Nietzsche and think they're so cool. Eventually, of course, reality usually destroys such illusions and delusions.) All quite amusing, really, if only Rand had drifted off into oblivion. Instead, she became, and remains, much to its discredit, a heroine of the American right, a driving intellectual force behind conservative economic and social policy.

I highly recommend Jon Chait's review of two new books on Ayn Rand at The New Republic, "Wealthcare." Yes, it's fairly long, but do take the time to read it. What's clear is that Rand was a pretty awful human being -- and that she, like most of the American right, was wrong about pretty much everything.


Here's a particularly amusing, if not also disturbing, passage:

Objectivism was premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavors. Emotion and taste had no place. When Rand condemned a piece of literature, art, or music (she favored Romantic Russian melodies from her youth and detested Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms), her followers adopted the judgment. Since Rand disliked facial hair, her admirers went clean-shaven. When she bought a new dining room table, several of them rushed to find the same model for themselves.

Chait is right that Rand's philosophy essentially amounted to inverted Marxism -- the elite supposedly kept down by the masses. As for her cult, it closely resembled the totalitarian Bolshevism she so loathed. (It got a lot worse, and a lot more sinister, than just admirers buying the same furniture. Read the review for some sordid details.)

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  • You demonstrate no understanding of Rand's philosophy. When you "grew up", I have no idea what you were rejecting, but it certainly wasn't Objectivism. Rant away, but your comments are meaningless to those of us who understand Rand's actual meaning and know how to apply her philosophy to our lives.

    Rand is not a "heroine of the right" as you claim. The conservatives have been trashing Rand since the beginning, and she was very critical of their incoherent ideology of contradictory premises. Rand is a heroine to all freedom loving individualists. The reason you are seeing a resurgence in an appreciation for Rand and her work is that more and more people from both the left and right side of the political spectrum are seeing the truth in her observations, rejecting both the Democratic and the Republican party line, and instead are demanding a respect for our sovereign individuality and a restoration of our lost constitutional rights. In the marketplace of ideas, we will see whether liberty and individualism still have a place in this culture.

    C. Jeffery Small

    By Blogger Jeffery Small, at 5:08 PM  

  • It's good to hear from someone in the cult. Thanks for checking in.

    (I know a thing or two about Rand's Objectivism, thank you very much, and from a rather more detached perspective than Mr. Small, I'm sure. And I realize that many conservatives, including Barry Goldwater, did now welcome her. But to suggest that she isn't wildly popular among conservatives these days is ridiculous. And the whole "Go Galt" movement is just infantile.)

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 8:41 PM  

  • The fact that you would automatically jump to call it a cult is a confession rather than a profession of opinion as you claim. It's a confession that any person who has selfish interests (selfish meaning concerned with issues regarding the self) automatically has an evil purpose; that anyone not willing to sacrifice himself for the common good is inherently evil. You toss around buzz words like "the right" and "cult" and "inverted marxism" as if they make a point in themselves, when in actuality, they only contribute further in distancing yourself from an objective viewpoint of her work. If that excerpt from Chait is indicative of his understanding of Rand, then it is clear that he has no understanding of Rand either. Does Ayn Rand control people who admire her? Does she tell them to shave their face, or does she state a preference of her own and others make their own choice to be appealing to her preference? For the same reason people rush to buy the same clothes a celebrity wears, her fans bought similar furniture of their own choice. I don't see why this is so "sinister" as you put it and I challenge you to post the more "sinister" material rather than just say it, because what you posted is grasping at straws at best.

    Your comparison to students reading Nietzche makes me agree with Mr. Small that you either really misunderstand or refuse to understand the concept of Objectivism. Nietzche is about the abandonment of reason; life has no meaning; it is a meaningless void; why attempt to create when all is destruction? Where Rand's philosophy states that reason is man's only tool to survive, and he must use that tool for productive work for himself to his own benefit and should strive to create value because that is what is given to him: potential value. She never says that emotion has no place in a persons life, only that a human being cannot allow him or herself to be ruled by their emotions and claim that their whims are reason enough to pursue a course of action. If you read Rand's work, how can you say she does not appreciate art and taste, when The Fountainhead is an entire book ABOUT art?

    Finally, a cult is a religious practice that claims a higher sense of being due to external influence (god or aliens or what have you) and demands strict obedience to a set of rules that were handed down from said external source and that external source is infallible and not to be questioned. Objectivism states that man must use his own reason to determine his own best course of action based upon his own knowledge and own decision making, and can only bring in, as factors of his decision, that which is based in reality. So, if a cult exalts that which is unknowable and Objectivism states only that which is knowable is serviceable to a human being, then Objectivism logically cannot be a cult.

    By Blogger Ryan the Lion roar..., at 11:45 PM  

  • "So, if a cult exalts that which is unknowable and Objectivism states [that] only that which is knowable is serviceable to a human being, then Objectivism logically cannot be a cult."

    Yes, but that's not at all a valid definition of a cult, is it? Besides, just what is knowable is always debatable as well -- which sort of makes that whole thing nugatory. Even if it weren't, all you have is a tendentious definition followed by a tautology and with breathless passion. It's an argument by proclamation suggestive of a very well organized cult with a lot of experience in self-defense.

    That kind of chicanery works better in spoken English where you can zip through it too fast for the victim to follow.

    Have you really read much Nietzsche or is that equally tendentious summation something you got out of a Cracker Jack box?

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 9:45 AM  

  • Captain Fogg, if my definition of a cult is not satisfactory to you, then please, feel free to leave yours.

    I am passionate about this subject, as you astutely point out, however it is not an argument by proclamation, which is a statement that something is because I say it is. It is an argument by premise + premise = conclusion. If A and If B, then C. If you feel that I have faulty premises, insert your own. Calling it a cult over and over again is not going to make it so, but of course, you don't call it that, do you? You merely state that it is suggestive of a cult. I'm sorry, withdrawn. Maybe you would like me to present the argument with different premises, but when I say "knowable", as I said earlier, I mean that which is based in reality, and by that, I disagree with your second premise. Reality is not debatable.

    If you feel like my summation of Nietzche is not accurate, maybe you can either enlighten me here, or have a suggestion of something I should read?

    By Blogger Ryan the Lion roar..., at 10:19 AM  

  • Nothing wrong with passion. Perhaps there is a better word, but reality; what is or is not in reality and objectively real, is always a subject for debate, as is a premise, as is the definition of cult. Someone who likes Latin might respond with petitio principii?

    Cult is only a pejorative in colloquial use, by the way. A break is a good thing to give. A cult is really only a collection of devotees.

    I'm not here to teach philosophy and I'm not here to express an opinion regarding the usefulness of Ayn Rand's books: an opinion which might be less useful than yours of Nietzsche. I do mistrust grand Utopian schemes and I think all of them are naive oversimplifications that eventually fail if implemented even though the authors base them on "reality."

    Your concept of the real isn't, I assume, based on provable first principles, like Plank's constant but on the apparently peremptory proclamations of Ms. Rand based on what she "knows." What is "knowable" is not a constant over time or between people, nor is it necessarily accessible -- and what is known may not be true. Are you getting the gist of this? Rand's assertions are what they are to whomever reads them, neither having descended held by holy hands from Mt. Sinai ( in which case wars would still be fought over the meaning) or having proceeded from physical constants.

    It's opinion and as mortal and assailable as any other school of thought from Meng Tzu to Marx.

    As I said, a break is wonderful thing to give.

    Blicken Sie nicht lang in's Abgrund! Would be Nietzsche's advice. It will only look right back into you QED

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 12:38 PM  

  • "I'm not here to teach philosophy and I'm not here to express an opinion regarding the usefulness of Ayn Rand's books: an opinion which might be less useful than yours of Nietzsche."

    Then this entire conversation is just a waste of my time and yours. Why would you step into the middle of an attack or defense of Ayn Rand's work if you have no opinion?

    You state my Webster's definition of a cult, "a cult is a religious practice that claims a higher sense of being due to external influence (god or aliens or what have you) and demands strict obedience to a set of rules that were handed down from said external source and that external source is infallible and not to be questioned," is not valid. However, when asked for one of your own you give the response that ANYTHING is a cult. If a cult only requires a collection of devotees, well lets see... This blog team is a cult, both political parties are cults, any sports team is a cult, all religions are cults, a band with a lot of fans, movie stars, and talk show hosts are the head of cults; any group of people with a devoted common interest is, by that definition, a cult. Furthermore, if you are, in fact, okay with that definition, you have transformed the word of having your intended effect of something to be avoided into something that is commonplace amongst people.

    You make a crack about my one sentence summation about Nietzche, which is really besides the point since your original blogger jabs at him as well and the only reason I mentioned him was to show the stark difference between the two, BUT when I ask you for a more accurate summation, you evade responsibility of even mentioning a piece of literature under the guise of "not being here to teach philosophy" and instead quote him randomly, not in English, but German just to make sure that even if I had read any Nietzche, I wouldn't catch the reference. Best part is, you state it as what would be his advice. I guess you're one of those "precocious college freshmen who read Nietzche and think they're so cool." By the way, I think it's hilarious that you walked into insulting yourself via a member of your own blogteam.

    I have no desire to debate philosophy with you about what is real and what is not. I really have no idea why you even got involved in this conversation as you have no stance about anything in the original argument. I can only guess that the author of this blog saw quickly that he was in over his head and appealed for help and you thought you could quell the flames by a bunch of statements, which, after you put them through the grinder, come out saying nothing.

    The final thing I have to say on this subject is that this blogpost is a blatant misrepresentation and smear of Ayn Rand's philosophy. If anyone happens to read it and desires to, wait for it, find out for themselves what her philosphy is about, check out her book The Virtue of Selfishness. (that's a proclamation)

    Thank you, goodbye.

    By Blogger Ryan the Lion roar..., at 1:15 PM  

  • "The final thing I have to say on this subject is that this blogpost is a blatant misrepresentation and smear of Ayn Rand's philosophy"

    OK, I hope it is and I say it isn't. This college freshman is much older than some colleges, was reading Nietzsche in German before you were born and expects that anyone here to give us lectures on philosophy would know enough to catch the hackneyed reference about not looking too long into the abyss, lest it look back into you. Take that any way you will, but as to your perception of its randomness, it hints at a justification for your own ignorance almost as much as Rand hints as a justification for lex talonis.

    It just seemed like a nicer way to approach your ill-tempered, swashbuckling arrival than to simply call you a fanatical and humorless buffoon with a chip on your shoulder. Silly me.

    I suppose the people who write about religious history, at least those I've been reading for half a century, haven't all read Webster and in talking about the cult of Ammon, Isis, the cult of Mary, the cult of the Magdalene, John the Baptist, inter alia, are misusing the term by your Websterian lights, but it doesn't matter since your monumental umbrage excuses any reader from worrying too much that you do or don't belong to one. You obviously do and more than in the more metaphorical sense Michael used.

    I was simply trying to point out that it's not necessarily an insult and suggest that you lighten up enough to take off the cultic robes, put down the bullhorn and have an actual conversation. Of course if you are inviting insult as some sort of auto da fe you're welcome to go immolate yourself. You seem about to burst into flames as it is.

    I was simply unwilling to spar with an obvious fanatic, possessed of such an evangelistic passion because I'm sure you've read every word and commentary and may well have an index file full of canned ripostes to every possible criticism. I likewise am reluctant to argue with drunks, idiots, Marxists, fundamentalists, self appointed prophets and anger addicts because it's pointless -- other than as a source of amusement.

    Frankly I don't think she rises to the level of philosopher ( some people say that about Nietzsche. Perhaps you should read Danto. ) and I tend to agree with Mr. Stickings about Rand. That's why I chimed in. He hardly needs my help and hasn't asked for it, nor do I think he's in over his head. He generally ignores trolls, being as it may be, wiser than I am.

    But back to the real world. By the time it all percolates down to the Republican level what's left of it seems an excuse to divide people into men and supermen so as to justify nearly anything "selfish" the latter might do to the former, as anything that makes money is ipso facto, moral. As with most late 19th and early 20th Century Utopian schemes, like Marxism, it works well on paper yet fails in every real application and shares the same lack of immunity to corruption and "self-interest" of the non-enlightened sort. It has it's own glossary, fanatically studied, and it's own dialectic and techniques of beating down opposition. It can't be beat in a debate, yet it can't win at being a basis for anything in the real world.

    Don't agree? I don't care. Not even enough to lecture you about the virtue of humility and of taking your nose out of Rand's posterior long enough to observe reality.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:13 AM  

  • In his blog, Hoff’s House, here is what Ryan the Lion tells us about a recent booking:

    So, it is only fitting that with booking my first network credit, my first job in close to three years, and in the context of my last blog post no more than twelve days ago, that I should be confronted by another acting union demanding me to join "or else"... Christ almighty.”

    Ina a previous post, this what Ryan the Lion thinks of himself, his profession, and his union:

    Many actors want to portray the image that they are the common man fighting their exploitation. What they don't realize is how correct their definition of themselves really is. They are common, meaning not unique, meaning easily replaced.”

    And of course, Ryan the Lion gives:

    Special thanks to John Galt, a character of Ayn Rand, for helping me articulate thoughts trapped inside me for so long.”

    He thanks a fictional character for a comic book ethic that would give him the right to negotiate his own contact without union interference. In other words, Ayn Rand is the patron saint of all SCABS !!! He would undercut his peers and colleagues … and drive them into the poor house … as long the Hoff House gets a handout from the producers who are the exalted Galts of the industry.

    That is the logic of Ryan the Lion. Undoubtedly, here is an idiot in search of a village.

    By Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS, at 6:02 PM  

  • Hi Michael:

    You can trash Ayn Rand as much as your [liberal,green,red,balanced,progressive,moderate,socialist,communist,pick your label] heart desires. We can take your claim to understanding her philosophy at face value, even though you offer no demonstration of it and no refutation of it.

    But do answer one question:

    If a single person steals your property at gunpoint, you call this a criminal act to be condemned by society. If 50 million voters steal the property of a minority at gunpoint, you call this paying their fair share or some other term.

    What is the fundamental difference that allows you to condemn the former, and justify the latter?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:20 PM  

  • At least Ayn Rand wrote coherently, and did not use emotional whims for the base of an argument.

    By Blogger Robin Sallee, at 7:54 PM  

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