Saturday, November 21, 2009

Heller Book Review - or Rand Hatchet Job? - @ Barnes and Noble

Barnes & Noble has chosen a professor of philosophy at London University to review one of the new biographies on Ayn Rand. Entitled The Thinking Read, by A.C. Grayling, I have to wonder just what B & N was thinking in choosing this reviewer. Grayling's essay, as I state below, "seems less ... a review than a polemical springboard for attacks on Ayn Rand and capitalism."

The subject of this review is Ayn Rand and the World She Made By Anne C. Heller. Interestingly, Ms. Heller appeared at a symposium on Ayn Rand sponsored by the Libertarian CATO Institute. In answer to a questioner, she said: "It's the rare book reviewer who understands Rand".

Grayling's "review" is so biased and dishonest and full of holes that it can only be described as a propaganda piece by a Rand hater. The reader will gain no incite into the book itself. Whatever the book's merits or demerits, Grayling has done an injustice to Ann C. Heller by using her work to produce a rant against Rand and capitalism.

Ms. Heller was being generous in her use of the term "understands". In many cases, I have found, reviewers who should, and probably do, know better simply distort Rand's ideas or substitute outright fabrications for her thought. Mr. Grayling certainly fits this discription. After all, he himself is a philosopher. It's hard to imagine that he can be so utterly clueless on the philosophy of a woman who is the subject of one of his essays.

Ignorance can not possibly explain Grayling's unjust diatribe.

Here is my review of A. C. Grayling's review:, posted at

by MikeZemack on 10-30-2009 05:51 PM.

I must begin by pointing out that Professor A. C. Grayling seemingly establishes his Marxist credentials early on, with this apparent criticism of Ayn Rand:

“She attacked those who located the basis of rights in need rather than achievement; for her this was to stand both reason and morality on their heads.”

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, said Karl Marx. Indeed, she did attack that insidious principle, dramatized in the saga of a large industrial concern portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. (I must point out, though, that achievement – i.e., productive work - is recognized by Rand as the source of property rights. The fundamental source of individual rights is to be found in man’s nature as a reasoning being and the consequent social requirements for his mode of survival. This is but one of a myriad of examples of intellectual sloppiness in this piece.) Though he doesn’t specifically endorse Marx’s view, the flow of the entire essay validates the assumption that he agrees with “those” that “she attacked”. The above quote is the tip-off, I believe. This points to a possible hidden agenda. More on that later.

As a long time admirer and student of Ayn Rand - and as an Objectivist husband, father, and grandfather who lives by that philosophy – I can most emphatically say that I do not recognize the portrayal of Ayn Rand’s ideas or of her philosophy of Objectivism presented here. But then, an accurate exploration of her philosophy is apparently not A. C. Grayling’s intention. He makes this plain early on with this escape clause:

“The close identification of these ideas with Ayn Rand's name shows how intimately her life and thought were one thing. A biography of Rand therefore has to consist largely in an exposition of her philosophy and an exploration of its effects on her personal life and those around her.”

In other words, he openly employs the fallacy of ad hominem. But no matter how one cuts it, a critique of a philosopher’s personal life is not a critique of his philosophy, regardless of how strictly he adheres to it (or not) in his own life. An examination of Rand's personal life is a valid undertaking, of course. But it does not and can not pinch-hit for a critique of Objectivism, which seems to be his primary motive. I am not in a position to discuss Rand’s personal life, which are outside the scope of my current knowledge. Objectivism, however, is not. Though it is Rand’s monumental intellectual achievement, Objectivism is not “about” Ayn Rand. Mr. Grayling apparently cherry-picks from Ms. Heller’s biographical study a host of Rand’s personal failings, real or imagined, and constructs from that an ethical straw man that is alien to the true Objectivist ethics.

Mr. Grayling’s assertion of an “intimate” linkage between “her life and thought” as a justification for his ad hominem tactics is nothing more than a clever rationalization for evasion. The inaccuracies and even irrelevancies evident here are too numerous to rebut in a single commentary. But there are a few that stand out.

Mr. Grayling’s portrayal of Rand’s ethical views closely resembles Nietzsche’s predatory individualism, not her concept of rational egoism. Rand defines individualism as follows:

“Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.

“Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: ‘I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.’ An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others.

“An individualist is a man who says: ‘I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’ ”
(From the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Though not a substitute for in-depth study, the Lexicon is a good shortcut to Ayn Rand’s thought on many subjects.)

The heroes in her novels, both male and female, are just such individuals. I question whether he ever actually read We the Living, The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

What is so repulsive about respecting and defending the moral right of each individual human being to his own life and the freedom to pursue his own goals, values, and happiness? How does that transmute into callous disregard for one’s fellow man? What long-term value does any rational person gain from that? What happens to the “small guy” in a rightless society? Just look at the results of the first nation, the United States of America, created on the premise that “the individual must stand alone or starve to death” … i.e., the premise of the unalienable and equal rights of the individual. The result was an unprecedented and unimaginable explosion of progress and prosperity and a stark demonstration of the fact that there are no “small guys” in a free society where rights are protected equally and at all times. Would the alternative be good? What are the results when the individual is forbidden to “stand alone”? Look to humanity’s bloody tribal history, and especially the collectivist hellholes of the 20th century, for the answer to that question. The “callousness of the jungle” is exactly what you get when need is a moral justification and license for human predation and exploitation, rather than a spur to productive achievement, trade, and self-improvement.

Mr. Grayling’s desperate and unjust attempt to frame the issue is clearly exposed with his quote that equates Ayn Rand’s concept of the rational egoist with someone who would “rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind”, as if stepping up in a disaster is incompatible with one’s pursuit of happiness! This is a slap not only at Rand but also at the Founding Fathers of this great nation who, like Rand, saw their fellow men as individuals capable of self-determination under a rights-protecting government, rather than as helpless “small guys” in need of the “protection” and guidance of a benevolent authoritarian state. Mr. Grayling fears that the individual can’t “stand alone” without starving. (Or perhaps he fears that when the individual stands alone, he won’t starve. Then what will the philosopher-kings do with themselves?)

Of course, “standing alone” is a straw man. Egoism does not mean isolationism. Human interaction is enormously beneficial. Romantic relationships, friendships, and trade in a free market are all life-enhancing values and fully consistent with rational selfishness, as is charitable compassion and voluntary assistance to people and causes one values. Objectivism is a philosophy for the individual which is geared to normative living – a moral guide to the achievement of a fulfilling life and to proper (i.e., mutually respectful and beneficial) relationships with others.

Throughout this essay, Mr. Grayling systematically constructs a picture that bears no resemblance to Rand’s strong and benevolent ethical theories. In fact, Ms. Heller’s book seems less the subject of a review than a polemical springboard for attacks on Ayn Rand and capitalism. Perhaps the connection of the two is a clue to Mr. Grayling’s motives.

He ignores the central theme of Rand’s principle work Atlas Shrugged - the role of reason in man’s existence and the freedom that the individual rational mind requires. Instead, he tries to define the novel by reference to a few non-essentials … and he doesn’t even get those right … so here’s some clarification. He refers to John Galt as “a businessman”, when in fact he is an innovative young engineer – and not even the head engineer – employed by a large industrial concern. Despite modest means, Galt quits to lead a principled fight against collectivist injustice. The independent “men of the mind”, as Galt calls them, are “taken along” from all walks of life, not just “the business community”. The heroes of the novel who join Galt in the “hidden valley” do represent the top talent in their respective fields. But more broadly, they symbolize the thinking human being of action and purpose on any level of ability. The rebellion is not merely against “regulations that impede getting rich” but against force that impedes the individual’s exercise of his means of survival, his rational faculty. The story dramatizes what happens to a society in which people are no longer free to think and act according to their own judgement in pursuit of self-betterment.

Similarly, Mr. Grayling rails against capitalism, employing the usual false smear tactics. For example, he ascribes to capitalism the creation of child labor, despite the historical fact that child labor was a left-over remnant of Feudalism which, over time, was eliminated thanks to the rising productivity enabled by capitalistic freedom. He also throws in the modern straw man of the anti-free market crowd, blaming the recent financial meltdown on capitalism rather than the real culprit, massive government economic intervention. These are “just two of a million examples” (to paraphrase Mr. Grayling) of capitalism being blamed for problems it didn’t create.

Mr. Grayling’s motives become clearer under cover of his praise for “her opposition to the use of force in world affairs” which “merits applause”. This is both misleading and incomplete and, perhaps, is intended to steer the reader away from the implications of a key principle of Rand’s thought. Rand was not a pacifist. She strongly upheld the right of any legitimate (predominantly free) nation to militarily defend itself against international aggressors. But more precisely, she opposed the initiation of force - not only by one nation against another - but also domestically, by government against its own citizens. She understood the connection between a nation that militarily violates the territorial integrity of other nations, and an authoritarian government that violates the rights of its own people - through, for example, systematic violations of property rights, non-objective law, political prosecutions, confiscatory taxation and economic controls, and censorship. Mr. Grayling doesn’t bother to address Rand’s true views regarding physical force in human relations, nor tell us why the use of force is bad in the international arena but apparently OK in the domestic one.

But this may be a clue to where Mr. Grayling is coming from.

Capitalism is the social system that abolishes force from human relationships by means of the recognition of individual rights and a government constitutionally limited to their protection – and made possible by America’s founding ideals and the consequent War for Independence. Ayn Rand gave us, through Atlas Shrugged and Objectivism, the philosophical foundation and validation that completes the political revolution of the Founding Fathers. Rand’s formidable moral defense of Capitalism, Americanism, and the rights of the individual entitles her, in my view, to the designation of America’s last Founding Father.

Many of those of the statist/socialist/collectivist persuasion, I think, understand this all to well, and so seek to discredit Ayn Rand in any way they can, but rarely by confronting her actual ideas. We’re seeing plenty of that these days, and the philosopher A. C. Grayling’s twin assaults on Ayn Rand and capitalism is perhaps an indication of his recognition of a key connection between the two - the long-term importance of Ayn Rand and Objectivism to the preservation of free market capitalism. With economics, logic, and history going against them, the Postmodern collectivists must be getting nervous that their last remaining socialist pillar of strength, the altruist trump card, is beginning to crumble. This is the fundamental meaning I draw from this piece (and others like it).

Mr. Grayling’s review essay is so biased, distortive, non-objective and philosophically agenda-driven that it behooves to run a rebuttal review of Ayn Rand and the World She Made as a matter of balance and fairness, perhaps by an Objectivist intellectual from the Ayn Rand Institute. I don’t know what Mr. Grayling’s analysis says about Ms. Heller’s book that he is reviewing here, since I have not read it myself. But I’d suggest that anyone interested in learning about Ayn Rand’s ideas should read and study her novels and non-fiction works and judge for himself (which requires independent thinking, a cardinal virtue in the Objectivist ethical system).

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