Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Vanity of an Ayn Rand Critic

It seems that Ayn Rand is everywhere these days. This is quite exciting for me, a long-time adherent of her pro-life philosophy, Objectivism. I’ve read a lot of essays, reviews of the new Heller and Burns biographies, and mindless “drive by” pot shots. But there are so many these days, it’s hard to keep up. While there has been a decent amount of positive coverage of Ayn Rand, the dominant theme seems to be irrational, even hysterical, hostility. It's almost as if there is a panicky fear among the intelligentsia that her ideas might actually be discovered. Even the pro-Rand perspectives lack depth, concentrating only on the political and economic parallels between today’s events and Atlas Shrugged.

Hostility comes from all vantage points – Left, Right, religious, secular, so-called “moderates”. Most of what is written underscores the fact that very few people actually understand her ideas: or perhaps, even want too. This last is the sense I get from a piece I stumbled upon recently at a website called entitled The Vanity of Ayn Rand . At least, this openly hostile critic has the courage to quote Rand directly. Interestingly, the passages he cites are left hanging without analysis or proper context (which I clear up), as though they are self-evidently evil. Perhaps he feels he is preaching to the choir, and doesn’t have any need to explain anything. He just moves along, ripping Ayn Rand. I started out with the idea of leaving a comment, and ended up with an entire blog essay – there being so much fodder for corrective analysis.

It's not the disagreement that is so objectionable. Rand's philosophy is in many ways radical, and no one is demanding unconditional agreement. A spirited debate is justified, and welcome. But is it too much to ask for understanding … and honesty? John Zmirak claims to have read her works, and this makes his piece all the more egregious. He titles his essay The Vanity of Ayn Rand. But if "vain" means "empty, hollow, having no genuine substance, or conceited", it's a very apt description of the author, rather than Ayn Rand, the rich breadth and depth of her work of which he pointedly ignores.

We can throw in the adjective “arrogant” to describe Mr. Zmirak, as well. To him, I'm just a "troll" and a "Gerbil". He'll "pick on" somebody "my own size", he says. That would be the “vain” Ayn Rand, whom he declares to be "in fact much larger [than myself], who has sold millions of books". Well, she is larger than he, and apparently too large, in fact, for him to tackle her ideas seriously, respectfully, and objectively.

It’s interesting that Mr. Zmirak uses the term “programmatic atheist” to describe Ayn Rand. Rand spends a great deal of time and effort explaining, in deeply philosophical terms, why Objectivism rejects theism. “Programmatic” precisely defines and describes religious faith and practice, does it not? Religion is based on faith. If faith in the religious context isn’t the surrender of one’s critical faculty to the unquestioning acceptance of certain beliefs and commands, then what, exactly, is it? It seems that Mr. Zmirak is programmatically opposed to Ayn Rand solely because of her atheism, and doesn’t find it worthwhile to examine her philosophy accurately and in full context. For example, take this quote he lifts from Atlas Shrugged (page 1044-45).

“A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of independence that he renounced his rational faculty. At the crossroads of the choice between "I know" and "They say," he chose the authority of others, he chose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think. Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others. His surrender took the form of the feeling that he must hide his lack of understanding, that others possess some mysterious knowledge of which he alone is deprived, that reality is whatever they want it to be, through some means forever denied to him.”

Taken within the context of the lengthy philosophical statement in which that brief passage appears, Rand uses the term “supernatural” in a very broad sense (See Collectivized “Rights”, where she writes that "modern collectivists ... see society as a super-organism, as some supernatural entity apart from and superior to the sum of its individual members". Emphasis added.). She defines mysticism as “the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as ‘instinct,’ ‘intuition,’ ‘revelation,’ or any form of ‘just knowing.’ ” She understood that an atheist can very well be a mystic, and it does not automatically follow that a religious person is. Just three paragraphs later, on page 1045, she writes:

“Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims – as his consciousness is surrendered to theirs.”

Collectivism is a form of mysticism, where a “higher reality” is represented by the group that somehow possesses a consciousness apart from and superior to the individuals that make it up. The collective’s mystic rulers somehow “just know” what is good for this group entity, regardless of the horrendous consequences for the millions of actual individual human beings. They simply replace God with the group. Thus, the atheistic Russian communists ruled in the name of the proletariat. For Hitler (who also was a theist), it was the German or Master race; for Mussolini, the state. The pattern extends back, with rare exceptions, throughout history. The same mystic tendency exists in the modern welfare state, where one often hears references to the “common good” or the “public good”, etc., as a justification for the latest government power grab. Rand understood mysticism as a fundamental ingredient of totalitarianism of all stripes. Stalin was as much a mystic as the ruling Ayatollahs of the theocracy of Iran.

It is utterly false that Rand “sneered at any and all religious believers as self-deluding ‘mystics.’ ” While all religious people profess belief in a supernatural realm ruled by a God who most believe intervenes in this world at his pleasure, many (and most in America) don’t actually live their lives that way. They may sincerely believe that “God will provide”, but they don’t sit around waiting for God to provide. I quote Ayn Rand from Ayn Rand Answers, page 63:

In America, religion is relatively nonmystical. Religious teachers here are predominantly good, healthy materialists. They follow common sense. They would not stand in your way. The majority of religious people in this country do not accept on faith the idea of jumping into a cannibalist’s pot and giving away their last shirt to the backward people of the world. Many religious leaders preach this today, because of their leftist politics; it’s not inherent in being religious. There are many historical and philosophical connections between altruism and religion, but the function of religion in this country is not altruism [by which she means not charity, but self-sacrifice]. You would not find too much opposition to Objectivism among religious Americans. There are rational religious people. In fact, I was pleased and astonished to discover that some religious people support Objectivism. If you want to be a full Objectivist, you cannot reconcile that with religion; but that doesn’t mean religious people cannot be individualists and fight for freedom. They can, and this country is the best proof of it.” [Emphasis added. For clarification, Rand’s use here of the term “materialists” should be taken in the narrow sense, meaning the recognition of the value of earthly material values and one’s property. Objectivism does not subscribe to the broader theory of Materialism, a la Karl Marx and others, which holds that the character of man’s soul or consciousness is shaped by physical matter and thus denies the validity of human volition and reason. Objectivism holds that man is an integration of body and consciousness, and thus is a being of self-made soul. Objectivism rejects Materialism outright.]

One may have some quarrels with aspects of that statement, but there is no evidence here or elsewhere that she “sneered” at people simply for being religious. The Founding Fathers were predominantly religious believers, or at least deists, and Rand considered them to be heroes – “as a political group, they were a phenomenon unprecedented in history: they were thinkers who were also men of action.”

Objectivism is not anti-religion or anti anything. It presents a positive vision and a positive alternative to today’s status quo, as any intellectual movement must do if it is to have any lasting impact. Objectivism is pro reason and pro freedom. As an uncompromising advocate for Americanism, Rand stands on the shoulders of John Locke and the Foundering Fathers, building upon their achievements and correcting their contradictions and omissions. You’ll never find a greater defender of the individual’s unalienable right to freedom of religious faith and practice. Rand’s indispensable contribution to the American ideal is a moral defense of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. She completed the political achievement of the Founders, and for this she deserves the title of America’s last Founding Father. The only sneering here is coming from John Zmirak.

Fundamentally, it is incorrect to characterize Objectivism as an atheistic philosophy. Objectivism is reality-oriented and pro-reason, and that has many consequences of which atheism is logically just one. For Rand, the basic moral choice is, to think or not. I notice that Mr. Zmirak doesn’t bother to tell us why “At the crossroads of the choice between ‘I know’ and ‘They say,’ [one should] choose the authority of others, [or] choose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think.” We apparently must accept as self-evident that faith is a virtue and superior to reason, as a matter of faith. I know plenty of religious people who would choose to understand rather than submit.

That “Rand opposed even private charity on principle” is false, and Mr. Zmirak pointedly evades Rand’s identification of altruism as an intellectual package deal that equates dutiful self-sacrifice for others with personal value-consistent good will assistance or compassion. Rand posited the virtuous pursuit of one’s own long-term happiness as each individual person’s moral ideal, and generosity towards those one values or charitable giving of time or wealth that furthers one’s own principles and beliefs can hardly be inconsistent with one’s long-term personal goals. She reverses altruism’s perverse ethical order by recognizing productive achievement for personal gain as a primary virtue, and charity as a minor, conditional, derivative one. This is consistent with reality, since the second is only made possible by the first. I submit that anyone who would throw an ethical roadblock in a person’s way, in the form of an open-ended moral command to sacrifice his values by putting some mystical “others” above one’s own life and happiness, can not claim concern for others as his motive.

He approvingly cites Rand’s “entirely justified hatred of 20th century collectivism”, then brushes off Rand’s concept of selfishness, the only antipode to collectivism. He quotes Rand:

“Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others -- and, therefore, man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”

The contradiction in Mr. Zmirak’s logic is glaring. If it is not recognized that “every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others”, then collectivism is justified and so is Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It’s either/or. Either human association is divided between interchangeable slaves and masters, where no one has a moral right to his own life but is simultaneously free to prey on others as a means to his own ends based solely on his needs. Or it is based upon benevolent coexistence, where people respect each other’s rights to their own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness – where values are gained from one another by mutually beneficial trade (material or spiritual) – and where people seek self-fulfillment while “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”

Mr. Zmirak writes:

But Rand's ideal of selfhood amounts to self-deification, fed by the pretense that the individual is wholly self-created, owing nothing to history, ancestors, neighbors, or the future. Think I'm being unfair here? I'll cite Ms. Rand again: "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.'"

Which recalls me to my first reflection on Deus Caritas Est:

When a follower of Ayn Rand (for instance) demands of me why he should give a penny of unearned charity to the unfortunate, I like to respond this way: "Did you invent the English language? Did you develop Common Law, or write the Constitution that protects your cherished rights? Did you build up urban civilization, or invent the technology that lets you live better than what man is by nature -- a hunter-gatherer? I didn't think so. It seems to me you inherited a great deal of social capital that you did absolutely nothing to earn. So now it's time to pass along a little bit of the largesse you received. Or else you really ought to strip naked and go hunt wildebeest on the savannah."

Mr. Zmirak, the anti-collectivist, reveals his own collectivist premise here. In answer to the "follower of Ayn Rand" (which obviously disqualifies him as an Objectivist, if he is indeed a literal "follower"), Mr. Zmirak throws out a healthy dose of guilt manipulation, based on a false premise – that wealth is a social product, rather than the product of the minds and work of individual human beings. What did the "unfortunate" recipient of the "unearned charity" do to unconditionally deserve it? Mr. Zmirak offers no answer. Instead, we get a straw man – and a rather silly one at that - which is easily demolished.

Rand does not dispute the great gift of inherited knowledge and achievements. Indeed, that is in large part what Atlas Shrugged is all about - a demonstration of the fundamental source of the misnamed "social capital", the individual mind, with the original creators and discoverers being mankind’s foremost benefactors and basic source of human progress. So, how do the rest of us gain a right to benefit from all of the achievements, great and small alike, that we inherited? Just unconditionally hand our pennies over to "the unfortunate" who also did not "invent the English language, develop Common Law, write the Constitution that protects your cherished rights, build up urban civilization, or invent the technology that lets you live better than what man is by nature -- a hunter-gatherer [!?!]".

Despite the fact that we were not there to create the developed world that came before us, each of us must still earn his own keep to the extent of our ability and ambition. Each of us, as individuals of free will, must expend the effort to learn the knowledge and acquire the skills discovered and invented by others ... by our own choice. We must then, by our own choice, put that acquired knowledge and skills to productive use creating things that others value, so that we can trade them for the things we value but that others produce. Yes, we are fundamentally self-made, both in spirit and materially! All of the “social capital” in the world is useless unless there are ambitious minds willing to pick it up and move it along. Mr. Zmirak calls this largesse. I call this achievement. I call this virtue. As any honest man knows, we must each earn our own keep in pursuit of our own happiness. To put it somewhat crudely or simplistically, one must contribute to the pie, before one can take a slice. This, after all, is how “social capital” came to be. The process by which knowledge is discovered and passed on generation to generation, expanding steadily and raising mankind’s lot along the way, is the unique accomplishment of a rational being, not a primitive hunter-gatherer … of individual achievement, not stagnant inheritors … of the self-generated pursuit of values, not altruism.

This is how we “justify” our existence – through the selfish pursuit of “joy and peace and pride”. The nation that fully unleashed “This god, this one word: 'I' ”, and codified it into its founding documents became the most productive, the greatest, and most benevolent society ever. To the extent that cultures embraced the code of self-sacrifice was and is the extent of the misery, poverty, and brutality that they endured.

Mr. Zmirak may “like to respond this way”, but he doesn't answer the question of "why he should give a penny of unearned charity to the unfortunate" who "did absolutely nothing to earn" it. As Ayn Rand pointed out, no one has ever given a real answer. It’s no wonder he likes “to respond this way”. It’s a clever way to cloud the issue, and evade the responsibility of an answer. Of course, neither Rand, nor the philosophy of Objectivism, precludes generosity, charity, or acts of good will towards others or towards causes one values. But those are consequences of selfishness, properly understood. Integrity, or loyalty to one’s values and beliefs, requires that one occasionally step up when one’s help is needed.

But the plain truth is, the focus on charity is a straw man. Where is the evidence that “Rand opposed even private charity on principle”? She simply placed charity in its proper existential context. The foundation of human life is productive work and achievement, without which we are all dead except for the few who can survive the existence of an animal. And the source of productiveness is the individual human attribute of reason. Man by nature is a rational being and productive achiever, not a hunter-gatherer. For proof, one need only consider the inevitable rise in prosperity and living standards that occur whenever people are left free.

Rand rose to ask a straightforward question - On what premise, other than a mystical one, can anyone claim a moral entitlement to the earnings or property of another, simply because one doesn't have it? As Rand makes clear throughout her writings, there are reasons why one would want to “give a penny of unearned charity to the unfortunate”. (As an example, consider the scene in Atlas Shrugged in which the heroine, Dagny Taggard, takes in a hitch-hiking tramp named Jeff Allen, feeds him, and gives him a job with her railroad company. Chapter X, part 2, page 654.) But then, if one values that person in some way, the charity is not really unearned, is it? The question is, why is giving a moral blank check? On what rational premise can anyone make an ethical case that enshrines the unearned as the only moral absolute and the essence of virtue? In having the courage and genius to challenge the established moral dogmas, she invalidates the entire ethical base of collectivism and socialism (and thus those 20th century horrors), both of which Mr. Zmirak claims to abhor.

The meaning of the "I" quote cited above is misrepresented and taken out of context. It is as anti-collectivist a statement as one will ever read. For clarification and context, here is what appears on page 2, part 11, of the very abstract story, Anthem:

I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold.

For the word "We" must never be spoken, save by one's choice and as a second thought. This word must never be placed first within man's soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man's torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie.

The word "We" is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.

What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it? What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and the impotent, are my masters?
What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?

But I am done with this creed of corruption.

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:


If one understands Rand’s novelette Anthem, one understands the meaning of This god, this one word: "I". Anthem is a saga of one man’s rediscovery of the value of self, in a future world in which the word “I” has been banished. The deification of the “We” is the essential premise of the Collectivist State, which Mr. Zmirak believes deserves “entirely justified hatred”. Rand is extolling the value and dignity of the individual human being, every individual human being. It is her celebration of self-esteem – the real thing, properly understood, rather than the pseudo variety of today’s usage. That is the only antipode to 20th century collectivism, or any form of statism. She saw people as heroic and possessing the political and moral right (and capability) to make their own lives the best that they can be (which is consistent with the view of the Founding Fathers). Considering his vastly different sense of life, it’s no wonder Mr. Zmirak only sees that “Rand's idea of the autonomy of the individual is so autistic, so clinically isolated from any real, human knowledge of how people grow up in families and cultures… .” Considering the viewpoint of Mr. Zmirak and the Catholic Church as man the depraved and flawed being, a hunter-gatherer by nature, and possessing Original Sin for whom perfection on earth is unattainable, perhaps we should not be surprised.

Ayn Rand proceeds from a different vision.

Ayn Rand has given us a vision of heights to strive for … on this earth rather than beyond the grave. She did not set out to present a documentary of people “as they are”. Inspired by Aristotle, among others, she sought to present a vision of people “as they might be and ought to be”. The virtues of independent thinking, honesty, and integrity – among others that her fictional heroes exemplify – are attainable by all people. Rand’s “self-deification” does indeed exalt man, and properly so. Her idealized human concept portrayed through her characters is desperately needed today, and I for one am grateful to Rand for giving us an ideal to strive for here on earth. Her characters will live on, inspiring people to reach for the best within themselves in pursuit of their own self-fulfillment, because they are worth it. There may be a lot of depravity in the real world, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Man, every man, is a being of free will and thus self-made soul, capable of reaching the highest levels of virtue. This is quite a contrast to the dismal view of Mr. Zmirak, expressed in his snide little dig that “Rand's heroes and heroines are as calculated, and as human, as a mathematical equation”. That’s all his sense of life will allow him to see in Rand’s spiritually uplifting characters. To him, “loss of self” is the ultimate virtue, as if to “fall in love, breastfeed, change diapers” [i.e., having a family and raising children] cannot possibly be of any selfish value to anyone. His is a rebellion against the pursuit of happiness. Children just have to be drudgery. To him, joy and reason are antagonists. To Rand, they are inseparable soul mates.

People should just read the novels and decide for themselves.

Mr. Zmirak has portrayed a fictionalized Ayn Rand, interspersed with Rand quotes for which he doesn’t even bother to attempt an explanation or refutation. And by ascribing to Rand a mere “political ideology”, he exhibits a profound misunderstanding of her philosophy. Objectivism holds laissez-faire capitalism as the political ideal, but that is only a derivative of much deeper philosophical premises rooted in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Unfortunately, many “followers of Ayn Rand” hijack her politics while ignoring the fundamentals of Objectivism that undergird it, leading to an unjust and erroneous perception of her philosophy.

This great American philosopher's cultural profile is on the rise, yet all most of her critics can muster is a refusal to intellectually and honestly critique Ayn Rand's actual ideas, and instead substitute smears, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and straw man and ad hominem tactics for the inability to refute Objectivist principles. The modus operandi of the Anti-Ayn Rand cult is an intellectual end run around Objectivism. The same old phony charges keep getting robotically trotted out from people who are either dishonest or simply don’t know what they are talking about. While acknowledging that some people honestly don’t understand, we hear repeatedly unsubstantiated charges such as that Objectivism is inimical to children and family (for rebuttal, see Objectivist mom Rational Jenn here and here), is anti-government or anarchist (click here and here), equates to Nietzschean predatory individualism (click here), is “elitist” [?] (simply read her novels), and other such bizarre nonsense.

Beneath the seething loathing and anger, is there the possibility that Mr. Zmirak understands fully the power and thus potential long-term threat Rand poses to religion’s, and in particular Catholicism’s, authoritarianism? Does he realize deep down that Objectivism has broken religion’s monopoly on ethics? Does he perhaps understand that Rand has discovered and articulated a moral code that, similar to religion, lays out a set of moral absolutes and thus a rational alternative to today’s moral relativism – but that can actually be practiced in service to the pursuit of earthly happiness? After all, altruism is plain destructive, to the extend it is practiced, because it ties virtue to the sacrifice of one’s values and thus too human suffering. The pursuit of happiness … i.e., the long-term achievement and protection of personal values … is possible only to the extend one is selfish. Which means, happiness is possible only to the extent one breaks the altruist ethics. Why altruism and self-sacrifice are good is never answered, because there is no rational answer. That is why it comes at us as commands from another, unknowable, supernatural dimension. God demands that you sacrifice, period. Why? Because he says so. Don’t think, obey, is the ultimate cop-out. And when it comes to something as vital to human life as morality, it is a travesty to demand full mindless acceptance of what amounts to prepackaged commandments that require that one simply give up. This is a powerful guilt manipulation tool for the Left, including the Catholic Church.

Ayn Rand has simply said that it is good to make your own life your highest value, and bad to destroy that precious value by your own hand – and to grant to others the same exalted respect and esteem. As Rand has observed, true brotherhood is only possible among people of independent mind and self-esteem, not among those who view others as “sacrificial animals” and who perceive life as guilt. The Objectivist code requires thinking and understanding, because it is grounded in the metaphysical facts of reality as they relate to man’s mode of survival. Man’s life, not death, is the standard upon which Rand’s ethics stand.

If the above two paragraphs are not true, then why doesn’t Mr. Zmirak just explain forthrightly what Rand says and why she is wrong? Why doesn’t he take Objectivism seriously, as it deserves to be?

Mr. Zmirak doesn’t want “to pick on random bloggers or trolls” who “[fancy] themselves the voice of this or that”. Well, I’m not the voice of Objectivism. I’m only a student. I’m just a mere “gerbil”. Instead, he’ll “take on somebody my own size: the philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand”. But, where’s the beef? Talk about vanity.

1 comment:

Rational Jenn said...

Hi! Good post--please consider submitting it to an Objectivist Round Up (let me know if you need information about how to do that). Thanks!

rationaljenn AT gmail DOT com :o)

PS--thanks for linking back to my blog!