Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Collective

Let's talk about Ayn Rand today, shall we?

Her's is a name we hear sometimes, often associated with her two most famous works "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." It is a name that might come up occasionally in the next few months, as Paul Ryan (VP candidate) has sometimes said he is an ardent supporter. He has dramatically changed his tune in the last few months, citing his reported support of her philosophy as an "urban legend." However, in remarks made a few years ago to a society dedicated to her teachings he is on record as saying, "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It has inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and staff . . . ." (It isn't clear which novel/pamphlet he is referencing there) ". . . . The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism."  

So why is it important now that he distance himself? After all, what he said there merely points to an over-riding philosophy of individual rights versus collective good--the very debate many politicians wish to frame right now. (Aside: the weird thing is, of course, that which side a politician is on depends on the issue. Democrats want individual rights when it comes to marriage, reproduction, privacy, and actual, you know, individuals, etc. Republicans want individual rights when it comes wealth, business practice and, you know, corporations recognized as individuals, etc. So neither side really has a very good claim to individualism vs. collectivism. End aside.) Why is he so antsy?

Well, quite simply, Ayn Rand's fundamental philosophy, without apology, is anti-Christ. She rejected Communist economic theory wholly and completely when she immigrated to the United States (with childhood scars over her parents' crushed entrepreneurial hopes). What she did not reject, however, was the Marxist assertion that "religion was the opiate of the people." But whereas Marx believed that perfect, collective government control was the antidote to religion, Rand asserted that the real antidote was pure, unbridled capitalism where self-interest was the most important value.

Lest you fear my own progressive tendencies have caused me to misread Ms. Rand, here are a few more famous quotes/anecdotes.plots:

Her first novel was quite widely-read, though very controversial, and made into a movie. She was very angry when the following line was cut from the climax scene, because she found it the most important line her protagonist had to say, "I wish to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others." 

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values."

"From the smallest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from one attribute of man--the function of the reasoning mind."

"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."

"If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."

She condemned much of our great and classic Western literature and proved herself to be rather poorly read, much more interested in movies than books. She descried Anna Karenina as the most "evil book in serious literature." 

One of her novels refers to people outside free-market entrepreneurs as "moochers," "looters," and "college-infected parasites." 

Her first novel is about a man who is uninterested in money, only in preserving the integrity of his ideas. She drops this pretense by the second novel and casts millionaires, barons and tycoons as her protagonists, portraying them as the true oppressed minority.

It seems she followed her philosophy of self-interest to the end: she lived in an open marriage (with a long and well-known affair with one of her many acolytes who headed up what he ironically called a "collective" of her worshipers), isolated herself from anyone who bothered or disagreed with her, cut-off relationship after relationship with those who might have helped her. What she never did was start a business. Hmmm.

Am I cherry-picking? Of course. I am making a point. Liberals have sometimes quoted her too when it comes to individual rights and choice and privacy. She is the mother of Libertarianism, and in times past, libertarians were as likely to vote Democratic as Republican. Part of the difficulty in the Republican party of late is the very real distance between pure Libertarians and the Christian right. One side would legislate nothing, the other side would legislate nothing but morality. 

So what is the point? I think Rand's overriding philosophy is inherently dangerous and at odds with true Christianity. Has she said some good things? Certainly. In thousands of written (rambling) pages even somebody like Rand might stumble on some truth. My deep dislike of her philosophy is personal too. I must admit to carrying deep resentment of anybody who says that somebody is "too smart to be a Christian." It is at that moment I need to repeat the mantra: charity never judgeth, charity never judgeth . . . .

To conclude I'd like to contrast two quotes. The first is from Rand who said this, "It only stands to reason that when there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there is service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the masters." Rand was speaking of both government and God. Don't get me wrong, I have no delusions that the government has as much right as God to demand sacrifice. My argument is that any philosophy that leads us to believe that all forms of sacrifice (yes, even taxes) are wrong, eventually will lead us away from God too. When we are led away from God, we cease to love our fellow man. Here is the second quote, from Joseph Smith, " a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation." 

When Plantboy and I were married, we were told that marriage over the altar symbolized the need to lay all we are on the altar of sacrifice for the good of our partner and our family. Rand's philosophy would have us take and take and take and find all our happiness in serving only our own self-interest. To use our agency to glorify only ourselves. Christ taught the opposite: to give and give and give and find all our happiness in service to God by serving others. To give our agency back to God and glorify Him.

I'm not saying I have arrived there by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I have a clear idea which direction I would like to be headed. And in the short term, that most decidedly means NOT voting for a candidate who EVER said his philosophy was primarily influenced by Rand. To now say otherwise is a flip-flop that should make even Romney blush.


heidikins said...

I actually really like Ayn Rand (I hope we can still be friends). While she does get ranty and lengthy in her diatribes, and I don't agree with everything she thought or wrote or said, I think there is something to her philosophy.

I also think there is something in "moderation in all things" and finding a solution that works for each individual person or family. For me, that solution includes God and religion and regular sacrifice and service. But it also includes making sure that I'm standing up for myself and my ideas when I feel it necessary.


Melanie said...

She condemned much of our great and classic Western literature and proved herself to be rather poorly read, much more interested in movies than books. She descried Anna Karenina as the most "evil book in serious literature."

That right there undermines any credibility Rand had (or could have, seeing as I've read none of her novels) in my mind. Can someone be a smart, thoughtful, effective leader without being a reader? Possibly. Can someone be a smart, thoughtful, effective leader and dismiss entire canons of literature? Not in my mind.

Scully said...

My sophomore year of high school we had to choose a philosopher/author two read and place artistic works in context of philosophical ideas. I didn't know much about Ayn Rand, having only read Anthem in junior high, and she was one of the few women, so I chose her books. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I was appalled at her sexual politics/philosophy (apparently she thought rape was an aphrodisiac?) and found her rather pendantic. Her philosophy was so reactionary to what she had personally experienced AND so obstinately closed minded as to be not so much a philosophical movement as a proto-cult. This is an inflammatory statement, but I feel she has more in common with L. Ron Hubbard rather than Plato or Nietzche or Rousseau. Her definition of individualism meant the reward fame, money, and adoring syncophants, as much as she despised them in theory. I find it very disheartening that she is used as a political mentor in any way, shape, or form.