Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bruce E. Levine: How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation

How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation
by Bruce E. Levine


How Rand’s Philosophy Seduced Young Minds

When I was a kid, my reading included comic books and Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There wasn’t much difference between the comic books and Rand’s novels in terms of the simplicity of the heroes. What was different was that unlike Superman or Batman, Rand made selfishness heroic, and she made caring about others weakness.

Rand said, “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible....The choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequences of freedom, justice, progress and man’s happiness on earth—or the primordial morality of altruism, with its consequences of slavery, brute force, stagnant terror and sacrificial furnaces.” For many young people, hearing that it is “moral” to care only about oneself can be intoxicating, and some get addicted to this idea for life.

I have known several people, professionally and socially, whose lives have been changed by those close to them who became infatuated with Ayn Rand. A common theme is something like this: “My ex-husband wasn’t a bad guy until he started reading Ayn Rand. Then he became a completely selfish jerk who destroyed our family, and our children no longer even talk to him.”

To wow her young admirers, Rand would often tell a story of how a smart-aleck book salesman had once challenged her to explain her philosophy while standing on one leg. She replied: “Metaphysics—objective reality. Epistemology—reason. Ethics—self-interest. Politics—capitalism.” How did that philosophy capture young minds?

Metaphysics—objective reality. Rand offered a narcotic for confused young people: complete certainty and a relief from their anxiety. Rand believed that an “objective reality” existed, and she knew exactly what that objective reality was. It included skyscrapers, industries, railroads, and ideas—at least her ideas. Rand’s objective reality did not include anxiety or sadness. Nor did it include much humor, at least the kind where one pokes fun at oneself. Rand assured her Collective that objective reality did not include Beethoven’s, Rembrandt’s, and Shakespeare’s realities—they were too gloomy and too tragic, basically buzzkillers. Rand preferred Mickey Spillane and, towards the end of her life, “Charlie's Angels.”

Epistemology—reason. Rand’s kind of reason was a “cool-tool” to control the universe. Rand demonized Plato, and her youthful Collective members were taught to despise him. If Rand really believed that the Socratic Method described by Plato of discovering accurate definitions and clear thinking did not qualify as “reason,” why then did she regularly attempt it with her Collective? Also oddly, while Rand mocked dark moods and despair, her “reasoning” directed that Collective members should admire Dostoyevsky, whose novels are filled with dark moods and despair. A demagogue, in addition to hypnotic glibness, must also be intellectually inconsistent, sometimes boldly so. This eliminates challenges to authority by weeding out clear-thinking young people from the flock.

Ethics—self-interest. For Rand, all altruists were manipulators. What could be more seductive to kids who discerned the motives of martyr parents, Christian missionaries and U.S. foreign aiders? Her champions, Nathaniel Branden still among them, feel that Rand’s view of “self-interest” has been horribly misrepresented. For them, self-interest is her hero architect Howard Roark turning down a commission because he couldn’t do it exactly his way. Some of Rand’s novel heroes did have integrity, however, for Rand there is no struggle to discover the distinction between true integrity and childish vanity. Rand’s integrity was her vanity, and it consisted of getting as much money and control as possible, copulating with whomever she wanted regardless of who would get hurt, and her always being right. To equate one’s selfishness, vanity, and egotism with one’s integrity liberates young people from the struggle to distinguish integrity from selfishness, vanity, and egotism.

Politics—capitalism. While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage. Rand was clever and hypocritical enough to know that you don’t get rich in the United States talking about compliance and conformity within corporate America. Rather, Rand gave lectures titled: “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” So, young careerist corporatists could embrace Rand’s self-styled “radical capitalism” and feel radical — radical without risk.

Rand’s Legacy

In recent years, we have entered a phase where it is apparently okay for major political figures to publicly embrace Rand despite her contempt for Christianity. In contrast, during Ayn Rand’s life, her philosophy that celebrated self-interest was a private pleasure for the 1 percent but she was a public embarrassment for them. They used her books to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness, but they publicly steered clear of Rand because of her views on religion and God. Rand, for example, had stated on national television, “I am against God. I don’t approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness. I regard it as an evil.”

Actually, again inconsistent, Rand did have a God. It was herself. She said:

I am done with the monster of “we,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: “I.”

While Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed Americans about the United State’s dehumanization of African Americans and slavery, Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves. Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The good news is that I’ve seen ex-Rand fans grasp the damage that Rand’s philosophy has done to their lives and to then exorcize it from their psyche. Can the United States as a nation do the same thing?

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