Thoughts on Rand, Islam, and the Manhattan Mosque

“Without private property in land, there can be no private property right at all, and without property rights no other kind of rights are possible.”—Letter, May, 1946, The Letters of Ayn Rand

“Where did you get the money for your first payment on that property?” “By playing the New York stock market.”—Francisco d’Anconia’s father to Francisco, Francisco to his father, Atlas Shrugged, page 108

Ayn Rand was no friend to Arabs. In response to a question about Israel and the politics of the Middle East on the “Phil Donahue Show” in 1979, she said, “Israel is an advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost primitive savages who have not changed for years, and who are racist, and who resent Israel because it is bringing industry, and intelligence, and modern technology” into the region. Later in the program, she added, “I don’t resort to terrorism. I don’t go around murdering my opponents, innocent women and children. That is what I have against the Arabs.”

In this context, Ayn Rand and Pamela Geller, photogenic operator of a website called AtlasShrugs.com and a self-described, Rand-admiring “blogress diva,” appear to be in sympathy. At least since 9/11, Geller and her husband Robert Spencer have kept up a banshee’s cry against what they view as a murderous Islamic conspiracy to destroy Israel and “Islamify” America. Stoking furor over the planned construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan—as well as proposed mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Brooklyn, and Staten Island—Geller has organized national media campaigns and rallies against the incursion of all “stealth jihadists” in our midst. Her website is festooned with photographs of worldwide carnage wrought by Muslims–so the captions tell us–and “raps sheets” on Arab diplomats, imams, Islamist financiers, Grover Norquist, those who criticize Israel, and American politicians and soldiers who are Muslims. Among her arguments against what she calls the “Ground Zero Mosque” (the proposed site is actually two blocks north of the former World Trade Center, on privately owned property formerly leased by the Burlington Coat Factory and damaged by falling debris from one of the planes that hit the towers) are: probable future funding by the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi families with Al Qaeda links, and other Arab terrorist groups; likely psychological suffering by families of 9/11 victims and corresponding “insensitivity” on the part of Islamic developers of the site; the chance that body parts may still lie buried on or near the building site; and “noon calls to 9/11 and jihad.” Geller approvingly quotes a radio ad by New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who said, “[If elected], I will use the power of eminent domain to stop this mosque and make the site a war memorial instead of a monument to those who attacked our country.”

Eminent domain? In the name of Ayn Rand? That would be a new low.

Fund-raising hasn’t officially begun for the Manhattan mosque. Nonetheless, Geller’s detailed reporting on possible financial links between the new owners of the Park Place site (Soho properties, owned by alleged slumlord Sharif El-Gamal) and suspect Islamic charitable organizations is provocative. It may be valuable. It ought to be—and is being—followed up by news organizations and the attorney general of New York. If laws—and there are plenty of laws to call on in the Patriot Act—are broken by El-Gamal or his backers now or in the future, Geller will have contributed to the apprehension and prosecution of criminals.

But what of Ayn Rand’s fierce commitment to individualism? My reading is that Geller wants Americans to view Muslims collectively, as a global horde, and through popular fear and persuadable politicians strip them of the rights she correctly claims set us apart from totalitarian regimes and temperaments in the Middle East and elsewhere—and are being invoked, illegitimately, she cries, to dupe the complacent among us. For example: the equal protection clause of the Constitution (forbidding states to apply laws unequally to groups or individuals). For example: the right to private property and the principle that private property is a staple of a moral social order and freedom.

The Rand of We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged convinced me of the rightness and necessity of basic property rights—one of the many ways in which her ideas altered my thinking. Geller’s opinions and prejudices reflect those of Rand in her old age. In 1974, when the novelist and thinker was 69 years old and ill, she gave a riveting speech called “Philosophy, Who Needs It” at West Point. During a question-and-answer period afterward, a cadet asked how she felt about federal treatment of American Indians, as they were then called; this was about a year after the bloody standoff between government agents and Native American activists at Pine Ridge reservation. The cadet was a Native American, although Rand didn’t know that. She answered that American Indians had been in possession of the land for five thousand years, had done nothing with it, and ought to step aside and let it be developed. “It is always going to transpire that when a superior technological culture meets an inferior one, the superior one will prevail.” She didn’t mention force, but her tone suggests that she was speaking of something other than the harmonious forces of the free market. By this time, she appears to have concluded that money alone is not a sufficient guarantor for ownership. In “Man’s Rights,” (1963), she elaborated her ideas about property. No longer is the right to property unequivocal. It is predicated on use. “It is not the right to an object,” she wrote,” “but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object.”

That’s too subjective for me. “A man holds his property because it’s his,” Rand wrote more simply to a reader of The Fountainhead in July, 1946, “—regardless of how many parasites claim that they need it more than he does.” Until he commits a crime, that goes for Sharif El-Gamal and his planned mosque.

-Anne C. Heller

Note: I plan to visit the Ayn Rand Archives as a registered user in early October. If you have a particular research question based on my book or other reputable sources, please send them to me at annecheller01@gmail.com, with AR Archives” in the subject line. I’ll report on what I find in mid-October.

Why I Am Not an Objectivist

Toward the end of my recent interview on “The Atlasphere, Kurt Keefner asked me whether I am an Objectivist. I answered no. Comments by two readers–one brief and friendly, the other sneering and combative–asked why not. Before I give my reasons, I want to make a few remarks about the second comment, which I reprint here because I get so many like it whenever I speak or write about Ayn Rand.

“Because Heller is not an Objectivist,” the commentator writes, “she is incapable of going to fundamentals in doing a bio on Ayn Rand, other than some sort of journalistic exposition of simple facts without analysis. But even this would be compromised by the *choice* of facts to focus on.

“She doesn’t understand that you evaluate moral ideas by their relationship to reality, not [as Heller wrote] ‘evaluating their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators.’ The latter, instead, tells you how well those people are *executing* the moral ideals. Heller’s approach is utilitarian. Little wonder she mentions Marx.

“She doesn’t understand that genius is defined by single-minded focus on the facts of reality, taking those facts (inductively) and extrapolating extensively into generalities and conclusions that are true. Karl Marx was *not* one of those people. Marx worked backwards (deductively) from altruistic intent (“social good”) without regard for facts, such as the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to non-initiation of force, etc. To compare Marx to Rand belies a gross misunderstanding of fundamentals and genius.

“Why didn’t Keefner ask Heller *why* she was not an Objectivist? The answer to that question would give some indication of Heller’s own dishonesty in relation to reality and enlighten potential readers of her book of the landmines awaiting.”

I’ll assume that the reader is a so-called Objectivist. Three decades after Rand’s death, some men and women calling themselves Objectivists (a title Rand explicitly reserved for herself and a pair of early followers) have adopted a strategy adherents used in her lifetime to stave off critics and equivocators–that is, to claim that anyone not agreeing with all Rand’s ideas is by definition benighted, probably evil (“punishing the good for being good”), and not worth listening to on the face of it. A wonderful tautology!  It let Ayn Rand choose not to read books she knew she probably wouldn’t like and yet publicly condemn them. It may perform the same service for my anonymous critic.

To assume that your intellectual adversary is an idiot or just plain wrong also lets you misquote or misconstrue him. Why should you treat what he says or writes with respect? Thus my critic has self-righteously given a false impression of what I intended to convey about the relationship between Rand’s ideas and her life. Here’s the full quotation from the interview:

Interviewer: How deep into Rand’s ideas do you think one has to go to understand her as a person? She was a philosopher after all.

Heller: I think you have to understand them thoroughly in order to understand anything about her. She devoted her life to ideas.

Furthermore, what is interesting about the woman is her mind; the reason I wrote the book was to find out to my satisfaction how and why her mind worked the way it did.

That said, I think the other side of the coin — evaluating moral ideas by their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators — is legitimate and even necessary.

As to the ridiculous idea that a biographer has to agree with a subject’s views and methods in order to shed light on the subject’s life and works, about whom else would my critic say that? Marx? Dewey? Kant? Like them, Rand set herself up as a moral pathfinder and a secular oracle. In Intellectuals, Paul Johnson noted that he wanted to focus on the “moral and judgmental credentials” of certain modern intellectuals whose mission was to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they–Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy–run their own lives? he asked. There is no reason not to ask the same of Rand.

One more thing: How are Rand’s precepts, “the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to the non-initiation of force,” facts? They are assertions–good ones to be sure–which are considered facts by Objectivists only because Ayn Rand held them to be true. And by the way, the first two do not apply to those “subnormal” people Rand made sport of in The Fountainhead, do they? But then, as Rand wrote to Isabel Paterson in 1948, “It is possible that the entire human race, with the exception of me, might become collectivist–and I will then damn the whole bunch of them without damning man as such. I do not form any conception of the nature of man by counting numbers.” Here is Rand at her inductive (and solipsistic) best.

This is one reason I’m not an Objectivist.

Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe. In this scheme of things, to demand to breathe clean air is to be anti-industry and anti-reason. To love open fields and the smell of the earth is to hate mankind.  While I agree with Rand that science and the profit motive may eventually combine to resolve some of the problems that science and the profit motive have created, I don’t want children, old people, or poor people to die while we wait.  I favor government regulation.

While “man” may not be–is surely not–“the means to the ends of others” [“Introducing Objectivism,” in The Objectivist Newsletter from August, 1962], neither is he “an end in himself.” Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), this gives me license not only to litter (alongside James Watts) but also to steal (with Goldman Sachs). This is what Whittaker Chambers was driving at when, in his 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote, “So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held ‘heroic’ in order not to be beastly.”

According to Rand’s now-elderly New York City doctor, Murray Dworetski, Nathaniel Branden once told him that all streets and roads should be in private hands. But how would that work? Dworetski asked. People would pay tolls, said Branden. Dworetski remembered laughing. Would each city street–61st, 62nd, Lexington Avenue, 112th Street–be owned by a separate individual charging a separate toll? Perhaps, said Branden, apparently not seeing the humor or the resulting traffic jams.

I have learned a lot from Rand–that people’s wishes are not necessarily my commands, even if I sympathise with them; that duty can be a logical trap. I appreciate her dedication to principles, to freedom, and to civil liberties. But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain public spaces and educate everyone, including those who wouldn’t or couldn’t educate themselves, and that we not let our civil society become unbalanced by too great a division between the rich and the rest of us.

Rereading “Darkness at Noon”

Preparing to read Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell (Random House), I have been rereading Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler‘s 1940 rendering of an old-guard Russian revolutionary’s thoughts as he faces inquisition and certain death at the hands of a new generation of Communist functionaries during the Stalinist purges of 1938. Koestler’s aging Bolshevik hero, Nicolas Rubashov, is said to have been modeled on Bukharov, Trotsky, and Christian Radovsky, but in his personal mettle and the relatively principled nature of his musings, he at times reminds me of Ayn Rand’s only “good” collectivist character Andrei Taganov in We the Living, whose noble spirit drives him to commit suicide rather than live with the corrupted nature of a revolution he sacrificed other people’s lives for: those he killed or watched die. In his prison cell, Rubashov compulsively remembers two innocent men and a woman, his lover Arlova, whom he betrayed and allowed to die–all for a revolution turned arbitrary and unworthy. He considers the forbidden word, “I,” and taps out its cipher on his cell wall in prison code, his last act before his execution for crimes he has confessed to but didn’t commit.

Ayn Rand disliked Koestler, just as she disliked Scammell’s other biographical subject, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and for similar reasons. In her view, neither dug deeply enough to hit upon the bedrock importance of  the individual self. Solzhenitsyn held to a pre-revolutionary, anti-Western Christian paradigm. Throughout the 1940s, Koestler defended Communist “ideals” against the temporary reality of Stalin. In a letter to Isabel Paterson in 1948, Rand calls Koestler “confused.” According to Robert Hessen, when asked about Darkness at Noon after a speech at the Ford Hall Forum, Ayn Rand answered with one word, “Junk,” and moved on.

Rubashov’s meditations on William James’s “oceanic” religious feelings and on the meaning of the self as at least partly limited by historical necessity and tied to duty are distinctly anti-Rand. But his nostalgia for a pre-Revolutionary world of boyhood Russian country houses and great books is Randian, and his thoughts about the paradoxes of Party loyalty cast a sidelight on both Taganov and Commandant Kareyev in “Red Pawn”:

“The infinite was a politically suspect quantity,” Rubashov muses, “the ‘I’ a suspect quality. The Party did not recognize its existence. The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.”

Rubashov’s thoughts go on:

“The Party denied the free will of the individual–and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to to choose between two alternatives–and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil–and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery.”

This was the world Ayn Rand braved emigration to a strange country to escape and that she fashioned Andrei Taganov, Commandant Kareyev, and Howard Roark to light the way out of. And yet Rubashov, who has not been permitted to enter “the land of promise” or even glimpse it “from a mountaintop,” as Moses did, and who dies in confusion, seeing “nothing but desert and the darkness of night,” is a tragic figure. We’ll see if the “confused” Koestler is tragic, too.

Anne C. Heller

What Conservatives Don’t Know About Ayn Rand

Rand on Duty and Compromise, Christianity and the “Sub-Normal,” Abortion and Free Markets

A little more than twenty-eight years ago, on  March 6, 1982, Ayn Rand died of heart failure in her small, high-rise rental apartment on East 34th Street in the Murray Hill section of New York. Although for three decades Alan Greenspan had been one of her closest friends and followers, she neglected his advice to invest in stocks and bonds. She kept her money in a savings bank across the street from her apartment. She left about $800,000 in her estate, a significant sum for the time but much less than she might have amassed had she bought property and shares in America’s great companies with her decades’ flow of royalties. She cared little for luxury, however, and was afraid of financial markets she did not understand. She wanted only enough to work in peace.

She also left a body of work that champions laissez-faire capitalism as passionately and persuasively as that of any writer of the last century. She loved the idea of capitalism, not because it offers the greatest standard of living to the greatest number of people or promotes the common good, though she declared that she believed it does these things.  She loved it because, by her lights, it is the only economic system ever devised that both depends on and advances individual rights, including the right to live as one sees fit and to own the fruits of one’s labor as money and private property. “The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is justice,” she wrote in 1965. In other words, her allegiance was to individual rights before capitalism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, traditionalist conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Whittaker Chambers, and Russell Kirk had trouble with Rand; they couldn’t get her to keep quiet about her less orthodox prescriptions and opinions. (At least they listened to her speeches and read her work.) In 2010, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the Tea Partiers seem not to know that Rand HAD any unorthodox views. Yet both–and every conservative from Reagan to Ron Paul–have invoked her argument that capitalism is not just the best of a bad set of choices but rather a categorical, MORAL good. They use it as a coup de grace in arguments with liberals and other pro-regulation, pro-Democratic “nanny-staters” about the proper limits of government power and what it means for government to redistribute wealth to the people whom FDR, Rand’s nemesis, called the ill-fed, ill-housed, and insecure.

If there was one thing Ayn Rand hated, it was the appropriation of some of her words and ideas at the expense of others. Her ideology was a SEAMLESS whole, she and her followers insisted. She contemptuously called the practice of picking and choosing among her tenets “cashing in” on her name. She had a habit of threatening to sue those who did it, especially those who marched around with signs claiming to be “going Galt.”

Here are some of her radically individualistic ideas that 2010 conservatives ignore.

• Duty, to country, family, etc.

Duty is one of the “most destructive anti-concepts in the history of moral philosophy,” Ayn Rand wrote in 1974.  By “anti-concept,” she meant a false idea designed to undermine and replace a true one. In this case, the true idea is “causality,” the law of cause and effect that guides a sane person’s attempt to match his means to his ends and his actions to his conscious principles and goals. “Duty destroys reason,” she wrote. “It supersedes knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions. Duty destroys values,” she added. “It demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command and transforms values [that oppose “duty”] into a threat to one’s moral worth.” As a notable example, Rand emphatically opposed the military draft. Does Sarah Palin support conscientious objectors?

• Christianity

She hated and feared it from childhood as yet another ruse by power seekers to humiliate and manipulate individual human beings. For one thing, “an omniscient being, by definition, is a totalitarian dictator,” she wrote. “Ah, but he won’t use his power? Never mind. He has it.” For another, she loathed what she saw as its fetishistic celebration of suffering and human sacrifice. “I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal, she told Alvin Toffler in 1964. “A man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious. . . And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors.” She was a lifelong atheist who wore a dollar sign where others wore a cross. It’s my guess that Glenn Beck, who likes the notion of a Christian nation, would not approve.

• Compromise

“There are two sides to every issue. One is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” In typical Russian utopian fashion, Rand viewed compromise as craven and degrading, possibly because she was a Russian. Since Russians have been ruled by dictatorships for at least 300 years and have never attempted to govern themselves, wherefore compromise? It’s nobler to insist on what you’ve never tried to practice. In America, compromise is a way of life. Come to think of it, perhaps the Tea Partiers DO admire this in Rand.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .