What Do I Think of Ayn Rand?

I actually like Ayn Rand. I’m a liberal, and not an Objectivist, but I see liberal elements in her that are proper correctives to the extreme ideological directions sometimes taken by those on both the left and the right. And I owe Ayn Rand a debt. As a teenager, I read her book, For the New Intellectual, and it materially assisted me in changing the direction of my life. I was feeling deeply oppressed by the fundamentalist religion of my youth, and that book helped me break from it, and assert my own dignity against my religion’s emotional blackmale and abuse. Her opening essay in that collection, “Atilla and the Witch Doctor”, shocked me in the way that she talked so dismissively about religion. I literally had never heard anyone even so much as dare to speak that strongly against religion before, and it was exhilarating to read—a sinful pleasure—and that book gave me a model for my own expressive confidence. Over the years, I’ve mellowed concerning religion, but in the context within which I encountered Rand, her assertive atheist voice did me good, and I say (without irony, and with Tiny Tim) “God bless it.”

Thus, to set in a nutshell my relationship to Rand’s thought:

  • I strongly oppose her theories concerning the emotions and aesthetics.
  • I support a mixed economy (something Rand vociferously opposed) even while thinking that her praise of capitalism stands as a corrective to far left demonizations of it.
  • I like Rand’s articulate affirmations of atheism (even though I am an agnostic) and I agree with her in her insistence on reason as a greater value than faith, and “selfishness” as a necessary corrective to the excesses of altruistic moral systems.

And what about her contemporary followers and enthusiasts? Do I believe that Ayn Rand spawned a cult?

I do not.

I would agree that there could be groupies who hang around the Objectivist Center in Orange County (in California) who might have a cult-like aura about them, and they might well tow an ideologically conformist line. But since I’ve never visited the center, I can’t say whether it gives off a creepy cult vibe. But it seems to me that a lot of the techniques that really solidify cults (psychologically) are not available to the broader Ayn Rand movement. There are “sacred texts”—I grant you that—but there’s no sleep deprivation, or the selling of all you have to live communally. There is also no collective prayer, singing, or chanting. I suppose you could cut yourself off psychologically from your family, but I doubt that many people who call themselves Objectivists ever do that.

Also, there’s no charismatic leader of the group (with Rand being dead). Rand’s handpicked intellectual successor, Leonard Piekoff, carries himself with confidence, and vulnerable people might be drawn to his confidence in a cultish way, but this is also a characteristic of other fringy secular movements, such as the one that has coalesced around Richard Dawkins. Like when Rand was alive, Dawkins is undeniably charismatic, confident, and crisply articulate about what he believes. People are drawn to that about him. But what Dawkins has generated is a movement, not a cult. And I think that the same is true of Rand.

But in one key sense, I think that Rand was cultic. She had a very cultic view of the emotions, and of a person’s ability to make (or force) emotions into accordance with one’s reason. I think that in this very crucial sense, the forcing of one’s emotions to accord with what you “know” to be true and reasonable, is a very cultic thing to do. Insofar as followers of Rand absorb her theories surrounding the emotions, I would agree that they are engaged in cultic behavior, and self-conditioning themselves (practicing repression and compartmentalizing in an unhealthy way). I think that any time you stop listening to your emotions, or stop reality testing your theories by taking them for a “drive” in the real world, you’re heading for trouble. 

And what about her fiction? Do I think it’s valuable?

Actually, I do.  

No, she was not particularly good at description or conventionally believable characterization. This is certainly true. And her writing is “pulp” as opposed to “literary.” But in fairness to her, she was not attempting to write, say, Realist fiction, but Romantic fiction (as she understood it). If we were talking about conventional Realism as the standard for judging all fiction, then obviously we would call her characters, in many ways, “flat” (as opposed to “rounded”). And therefore, in this sense, her characters are poorly conceived. But Rand was attempting fiction of a different sort. She was trying to create characters who inhabited philosophical positions essentially. It’s hardly fair to critique her by the terms of one genre when she is clearly trying something wholly different from that genre. 

Rand was trying to imagine heroes and anti-heroes who lived out, consistently, philosophical premises to their (what she regarded) logical conclusions. It may be crap fiction by conventional literary standards, but what she did is experimentally interesting, and obviously captures the imagination (her fiction books, I believe, sell, at least in the United States, second only to the Bible). And so, given what she was trying to do, I must say that I like Rand’s character, Howard Roark (for example), and his dogged determination. And I think she is rather good at making Iago-like villains who live completely devoted to forms of malice.

In short, she is not writing Naturalism or Realism in her novels, and she is not appealing to “man on the street” sensibilities about what constitutes the ordinary. This doesn’t mean that Rand’s characters are inhuman or lacking in real passion. To the contrary, passion is something characteristic of her life and her novels—it’s just a passion associated with her understanding of Romanticism (as opposed to 19th and early 20th century Naturalism and Realism). She was trying to get her head around how philosophical positions channel through the passions. Who can fault her for so interesting an experiment in fiction writing?

Here’s Ayn Rand speaking to Mike Wallace in 1959:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What Do I Think of Ayn Rand?

  1. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    I read this post feeling a lot of frustration, but I don’t really know how to communicate it. I say frustration because I read your blog regularly and I really don’t see much from you that aligns with Ayn Rand. So I’m always astonished that you reach out from time to time to say good things about her and about the radical individualism she represents.

    I know you know that Ayn Rand was not merely reminding people to balance individual interest with the interests of others. She was screaming the absolute primacy of the individual at the top of her lungs. “Do what thou wilt” follows her logically.

    I note your fundamentalist experience when you were younger. Fair enough. But I don’t think objectivism is about rescuing people from fundamentalism, I think it IS fundamentalism.

    I’m surprised, after listening to months of right-wing individualistic propaganda that damn near succeeded in shutting down health care reform and damn near convinced Americans that our president is a fascist, hyper-collectivist, authoritarian, that you would still go so easy on Ayn Rand’s anti-common-good message.

    The virtue of selfishness?

    Selfishness is self-interest so robust it extends beyond the boundary of what is moral. It happens when one stops caring, at all, for the common good.

    Selfishness is the obscenely wealthy paying less taxes at the expense of millions of children going without healthcare.

    Selfishness is denying life-saving medical treatments to drive up windfall profits.

    Selfishness is Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bernie Madoff, Enron, et al.

    I don’t mean to lecture, but I really, truly do not understand why you find objectivism even remotely appealing or worth endorsing at this place and time? It strikes me as an extreme reaction to authoritarian evils of the early 20th century. Does it ever make sense to react to one extreme by leaping to the other?

    I can honestly say that I’ve never met a true “collectivist” in my life–I’m convinced it is a libertarian bogeyman. Everyone I’ve ever met recognizes the importance of individual liberty and reasonable self-interest. So for me, an alarm goes off when I hear individualism being preached. Who the hell needs to be told about the value of the individual in this, the most individualistic culture in world history?

    While I recognize the value of the individual, to even hear it emphasized over and above our already radically individualistic culture, well, it feels like I’m watching some surreal satire. Is this real, or some sort of Andy Kaufman or Borat-like gag? As if it would make sense for someone to publicly call for more pollution, or more lawsuits, or more junk mail.

    And then there is Rand’s misogyny…

    Can you set me straight or am I lost cause?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jared:

    A couple of things:

    —First, I don’t think that, as you put it—“’Do what thou wilt’ follows her logically”—is her position. Rand sounds like Nietzsche in places, and was undeniably formed in part by her encounters with Nietzsche, but she never advocated the blind will to power. Rand worked from these premises: (1) humans, unlike animals, cannot rely on instinct for survival, but must rely on reason. (2) Man’s right, therefore, to his mind and the exercise of his reason must be protected from interference. And (3) in a civil cooperative association of people devoted to their own survival, all members of that community will respect the freedom of the mind (because it is the sole tool for man’s survival). In other words, she believed that rational people, living in groups, would respect basic rights, especially with regard to the mind and bodies of others. It is not an instinctual dog eat dog world in Objectivism. It’s a free people reasoning with free people world. I realize that this idea is lavished with utopian idealism.

    —You said: “Selfishness is self-interest so robust it extends beyond the boundary of what is moral.” If that is how you define selfishness, then Rand would not advocate selfishness. Rand was intensely moral. She loved people, and she valued things, and in her personal life, she was generous and giving. But those things that she earned and produced, she felt she had the absolute right to exercise full discretion over their distribution. I realize that it is a radical position. It’s an irreligious position. She basically says that those things that were produced by her mind and effort belong to her, not to God or the state. And she expects to exercise her discretion as to what she does with them. She respects those things that belong to others, and as a consequence she does not want others disrespecting her right to those things that she has produced and owns. She wants the products of her effort to go to what she values, not what God values or the state values. That, Jared, is a moral position. It is just not a moral position set in Christian or liberal terms. It’s a competing moral system, not an immoral system.

    —I don’t think that Glenn Beck is a grandchild of Ayn Rand. I don’t think you can blame a gentile authoritarian irrationalist like Tertullan on the Jewish Jesus of a few generations previous, and likewise I don’t think that you can blame a Mormon Birchite conspiracist like Beck on an atheist Objectivist like Rand. I think that Rand would have despised the religious right of today. I know that her successor, Leonard Piekoff, does.

    —As for Rand’s misogyny, that is there. No doubt. But in larger terms, Rand is on the right side of the historic issue of equality for humans. She was on the side of Locke and not Hobbes. To my mind, once you are on the Lockean side of the ledger, you’re in liberal territory. There is nothing authoritarian or Hobbesian about Rand’s philosophy. Nothing. Those who say this about her philosophy are simply trying to defame her. The contemporary Republican party is a weird mix of authoritarian and libertarian elements, but I don’t think Rand was. The Republican party is a syncretism to which Rand would not belong.

    —Lastly, your ambivalence about the expression of selfishness in a selfish culture is, I think, right. It could be argued that the reason we have such stark altruistic moral admonitions from religion is because people are naturally selfish and don’t need encouragement in things that they already practice. But it is also true that the state can be too ready to take taxes from people, and the extreme statements of selfishness that you see on the right are, as it were, a corrective in that direction. As a result of the long, hot health care debate, we might well get a decent bill that expands coverage and keeps the budget from ballooning into deficit. Both things are important, and to the extent that the far right yelled loud on one side, to that extent they may have helped produce a better final bill. I admit that I sassed the right about their behavior, but that’s me as a liberal talking. The right needs to hear from me too. I really am a centrist. I believe that the truth is usually to be found somewhere in the middle of extremes, and that both sides have important things that the middle should pay attention to.

    —Santi

  3. Jared Burton says:

    Have you heard that Ralph Nader has a new work of fiction, “‘Only the Rich Can Save Us.'” I went to Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena to have him sign my copy and hear him speak about it. He mentioned that the book has less pages than Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and has bigger print for the older generation.

    I recommend looking into the PLOT of this book before jumping to the politically based, non-objective reviews.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    Thanks for the book tip. I hadn’t heard about Nader writing a piece of fiction.

    —Santi

  5. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    I don’t want to start a debate or anything, but a few points.

    I agree with your points about Rand, I personally think radical individualism follows logically from her philosophy, but I agree that she does not directly endorse “do what thou wilt,” but she does get very close.

    I also agree that objectivism is not amoral. Rand clearly endorsed an elaborate system of supposed virtues, a system that I, and many others, think was mistaken to the point of being immoral.

    And I don’t understand why it is so important to you that Rand’s philosophy is not authoritarian in the least. I’m just sounding like a broken record from earlier comments, but I really do not understand why you elevate (in words only it seems) anti-authoritarian ideals above all other values.

    It strikes me as so obvious, so brutally conclusive, that the autonomy of the invidual is always being balanced with the value of the common good. I appreciate very much that you seem to very strongly exhibit a grasp of this when the rubber meets the road (health care, for example), but you seem almost rigid about never articulating anything about the common good. Almost like you hold some sort of unspoken dissonance about it–you know the common good is a virtue just as much as individualism, but you fear sounding authoritarian perhaps?

    At any rate, you seem to support a good number of communitarian ideas, but rarely do you articulate what must, in fact, be the case: that you quite regularly agree that the common good regularly trumps individual freedom, liberty and autonomy.

    I’ve come across a number of liberal individualists now since I started paying attention to communitarian ideas. I saw Thomas Frank, for example, just a few nights ago. He spoke here about his new film based on his “Kansas” book. He was a wonderful speaker and I agreed with him on most everything. But one of the stranger things he said was, contra conservatives, universal health care is actually the polar opposite of a collectivist move. Government healthcare for everyone, and higher taxes for many folks, actually IS just individual liberty and freedom being put to law.

    I support universal healthcare, and what Frank said is clearly not true. To support bigger government, and universal healthcare programs, and higher taxes for many, and greater regulation for doctors and patients, is to prefer the common good rather than the autonomy of individual citizens. While it isn’t opposed to freedom, it isn’t predicated on freedom either. It is predicated on all of us doing health care together.

    I thought it was amazing that Frank was doing acrobatics in order to maintain his radical commitment to liberal individualism. Apparently, he couldn’t bring himself to admit that individual freedom, in the strictest sense, was being trumped by the move for universal healthcare. I think this is just dishonest, although I’m certainly grateful he does support reform.

    A year or so ago, I asked you about graduated taxes for the wealthy, which I understand that you support (as I do). If I recall, you responded with something roughly like “higher taxes for the wealthy is not authoritarian at all, it is just obvious that rich folks should pay a little more.”

    I have to tell you, this seems like Frank. I really don’t understand this liberal approach. Why not just admit that everything doesn’t revolve around simplistic notions of “authoritarian government bad, freedom and individual liberty good.” Clearly, government programs that help the needy involve trumping quite a few individual interests, liberties, and freedoms, but for the common good. Strictly understood, for those who pay higher taxes, it IS something of an authoritarian move. And it is the right move.

    I just wish that liberals would stop feeling they have to frame everything in the same damn way that conservative libertarians do. Lets just speak the truth: we are balancing individual and collective interests on a case by case basis. Occasionally trumping individual interests for the greater good is often acceptable and necessary. Why don’t liberals just embrace this, rather than feeling insecure with appearances of authoritarianism?

  6. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    You’re cornering me in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable (which is good!). I have to agree that I have the cognitive dissonance that you describe, and that authoritarianism is a bogey for me. Collective interests and individual liberty are often at odds, and you cannot maximize both of them at the same time. There are trade-offs. But to admit them, as a liberal, is to acknowledge, I suppose, my own intellectual shadows (the ones I project onto Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh).

    By the way, I’ve long encouraged you to read Isaiah Berlin, and I’d note that his point is yours. There is no utopia, only a trade off of competing goods. I think that, at one time, you were resistant to the idea (but maybe I’m misremembering).

    As a liberal, I suppose that I’m like the society woman who discovers evolution (if it is true, we must not speak of it too much). It’s a bit vulgar to think about.

    —Santi

  7. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    I will really make an effort to look at Berlin, I promise.

    I was probably a bit harsh above and I apologize.

    I’ve always wondered how much upbringing plays into this. My father, for example, was gone quite a bit when I was growing up, and I think I actually missed out on a healthy dose of discipline (and parental involvement). Strange as it sounds, I often felt like I had too much freedom and autonomy growing up (and no direction or guidance). I often suspect my preference for communitarianism follows from this. (And I’ve not yet considered all this in the context of my religious beliefs).

    I have a family friend my age who grew up home-schooled in a rigid, fundamentalist family and he is now active in the Ron Paul movement and is a far right wing libertarian activist (and still a fundamentalist Christian, which confuses me).

    I’m always frustrated with this friend, but I do feel sorry for his authoritarian upbringing, which gives me grace for him and helps me to understand his preference.

    I know you had run-ins with fundamentalism when you were growing up, with some bad experiences, so I do understand where you are coming from as well.

    By the way, I know that communitarians are squares who don’t write in awesome prose like Hitchens, Hedges, et al, but here are a couple books if you are interested:

    This is the author that really stirred me initially:

    http://www.amazon.com/Libertarian-Illusion-Ideology-Public-Assault/dp/1933116501/

    http://www.amazon.com/American-Democracy-Peril-Challenges-Americas/dp/0872899705/

    And this is a communitarian classic, you’ve probably seen it:
    http://www.amazon.com/Habits-Heart-Individualism-Commitment-American/dp/0520254198/

    Oh, and Michael Sandel is a communitarian:
    http://www.justiceharvard.org/

    No worries if it doesn’t interest you, but it would be fascinating to see your take (or critique) of communitarians on your blog at some point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s