Wealthcare

As the 2012 Presidential conventions and election draw near, Jonathan Chait’s 2009 essay on Ayn Rand for The New Republic casts light on the timely issue of whether and to what degree the achievement of wealth and the possession of moral virtues go together. 

By Jonathan Chait, The New Republic

I.

The current era of Democratic governance has provoked a florid response on the right, ranging from the prosaic (routine denunciations of big spending and debt) to the overheated (fears of socialism) to the lunatic (the belief that Democrats plan to put the elderly to death). Amid this cacophony of rage and dread, there has emerged one anxiety that is an actual idea, and not a mere slogan or factual misapprehension. The idea is that the United States is divided into two classes–the hard-working productive elite, and the indolent masses leeching off their labor by means of confiscatory taxes and transfer programs.

You can find iterations of this worldview and this moral judgment everywhere on the right. Consider a few samples of the rhetoric. In an op-ed piece last spring, Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, called for conservatives to wage a “culture war” over capitalism. “Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the ‘sharing economy,’ ” he wrote. “Advocates of free enterprise . . . have to declare that it is a moral issue to confiscate more income from the minority simply because the government can.” Brooks identified the constituency for his beliefs as “the people who were doing the important things right–and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.” Senator Jim DeMint echoed this analysis when he lamented that “there are two Americas but not the kind John Edwards was talking about. It’s not so much the haves and the have-nots. It’s those who are paying for government and those who are getting government.”

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Tehelka Magaizine Reviews “Ayn Rand and the World She Made”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 29, Dated July 24, 2010

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Catching them young. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Ayn Rand’s harangues have long assaulted the blameless. An unflinching biography tells us why but with dishonest intent, says ARUL MANI.

AYN RAND was responsible for my first book review some two decades ago. A classmate in college asked if I had heard of Atlas Shrugged and took my no as invitation to shove a new excerpt under my nose every day. Each excerpt was some long unreadable harangue that caused my eyes to glaze over but he mistook this for ecstasy. One day he pointed out some pithy saying on excellence or money, or both, and the note his father had scribbled in the margins— “read this now, and through the years”. I drew a pair of testicles below that line because I felt under pressure to offer some gesture of further benediction. He never spoke to me again. Rand has enjoyed for years an unacknowledged second life in India. She is for the unfortunate above a life-changing instructor in how to be modern. Her works, with their overt agenda of creating “a morality of rational self-interest to defend capitalism”, also provide a vocabulary for upper-class darlings unable to articulate their own discomfort with a changing world beyond mantric intonations of the word ‘merit’. This book allows us to see how the experiences of the impoverished Jewish student Alisa Rosenbaum in post-revolution Russia shaped her enthusiasm for America and provided the motor for the best-selling author that she became.

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AYN RAND: AND THE WORLD SHE MADE Anne C Heller Nan A Talese 567 pp; Rs 499

HELLER SURVEYS the limited reading life from which came Ayn Rand’s beginnings as author — primary inspirations seem to have been Victor Hugo and The Mysterious Valley, a serialised adventure for boys whose hero, Cyrus, meets his foes with defiant laughter, thus providing the template for all her heroes. She does not flinch from showing us Rand’s peptalks to herself (“You must be nothing but will, all will and all control”) nor from admitting the ‘gauzy sadomasochism’ of her love scenes (“His embrace”, Rand once wrote, “was like an act of hatred, like the cutting blow of a lash”). The Rand who described the content of her novels as ‘metaphysics, morality, politics, economics, sex’ is also discovered to have an overly “rhetorical pitch and a tin ear for American diction”. Documented with equal scrupulousness is ‘The Collective’, an Ayn Rand cult of ideal readers which decents into “a pallid kind of Stalinisation, marked by tantrums and purges.”

My quarrels with Heller arise from the fact that all this truthtelling is in aid of setting up its subject as a model of intellectual sexiness, albeit with faults. Ayn Rand is thus somebody who was conservative yet pro-abortion and anti-Vietnam, somebody who brought rigour and dazzle to the simple business of being right-wing, conservative and paranoid. Heller thus ducks all questions about Rand’s intellectual laziness and the small irony revealed in the fact that the cult of heroism Rand propounded needed millions of ordinary people swallowing such a fairy-tale without asking too many questions is also ignored.

The book’s saving grace is that it strikes a far less triumphal note than suggested by title and precedent. On the whole, I see no reason to revise the opinion of Ayn Rand I expressed in succinct hieroglyphics all those years ago.

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

WELCOME TO MY BLOG

Readers often say that reading Ayn Rand changed their lives. A few days ago, a young Turkish immigrant named Zuhal came to my apartment to interview me for a blog she writes and told me how encountering WE THE LIVING two summers ago changed her life: it inspired her to leave her family and friends in Turkey and move permanently to the United States. She wanted to be an American, free of the constraints of religion, superstition, and tradition. Specifically, she told me, when she read the ending scene of the novel, in which Kira, the heroine, risks death and perishes while trudging toward Soviet Russia’s border with the West and freedom, Zuhal made up her mind that, for her, living without freedom is not living at all.

During five years of writing a full-scale biography of the remarkable Ayn Rand, I, too, have been changed. I have learned to listen more carefully to the logic and quality of thought our politicians and social critics bring to their political and economic arguments. I’ve become convinced that individual rights make up our most important inheritance and that “unearned guilt” (in Rand’s apt phrase) and the propagation of political fear erode it. I have stopped thinking that “altruism” is an uncomplicated, entirely benign concept.

In the days and weeks to come, I’ll use this blog to write about the ways in which Ayn Rand has affected my thinking and that of others; political and moral questions she raises but does not answer to everyone’s satisfaction, including mine; and her still-powerful influence on large, important corners of our culture.

I’ll also post some of the comments about Rand and my book that I’ve seen on websites and in chat rooms that I think are wrong-minded in interesting ways. I’ll answer all gripes and divergent opinions and invite you to do the same–as well as state your own opinions–in a comments section.

My first blog will be on “What Conservatives Don’t Know about Ayn Rand.” I’ll post it on Saturday, March 6. I hope you’ll join me.