Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Defending Ayn Rand

An interesting and important cultural development -- in the way of two critical skirmishes in the conflict between Objectivism and its mainstream critics, left, right, and fringe -- was the Objectivist and general reader response to a “review” of Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made by noted conservative critic Anthony Daniels, who also writes under the name of Theodore Dalrymple, in The New Criterion, and to another “review,” ostensively of Atlas Shrugged, by a conservative-libertarian critic (for lack of a better appellation), Cathy Young, at Real Clear Politics.

While Objectivist input was overwhelmed by the number of responses from doubters (of Rand and/or of Daniels and Young), pragmatists, certified and vitriolic enemies of Rand and her work, the genuinely curious, the clueless, the sarcastic, and the disgruntled, and by what one commentator called “seminar trolls,” Objectivists put in a strong showing, explicating the philosophy and exonerating Rand of the outrageous allegations about her by the critics.

In both reviews, the authors’ chief subjects were Rand herself, as a means of criticizing Rand and her underlying philosophy of egoism, and not the biography or the novel itself. Both reviewers misrepresented Rand and the novel, and both accused her of having concocted, among other things, a “totalitarian” political philosophy, while at the same time neglecting (or refusing) to examine, except in the most superficial and sarcastic manner, the tenets of Objectivism. Both based their perspectives on what other critics in the past have said about Rand, without demonstrating or exhibiting a first-hand acquaintance with her and her works. Daniels’ article was a review of the notoriously gossipy Heller biography, and not of the fractionally better but no less egregious Jennifer Burns biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. A review by Daniels of the Burns biography, however, would have produced the same contemptible litany of exegeses.

Reader responses to the Daniels review, “Ayn Rand: engineer of souls,” have totaled well over two hundred. Faced with the unusual volume of interest, the editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball, thought it wise to come to the critic’s defense by publishing an endorsement of Daniels on Pajamas Media, and, because it was of the same snickering, snorting, iconoclastic tone and character as the Daniels review, it, too, has generated over one hundred responses.

Cathy Young’s review has, to date, generated over one hundred. However, this was not her first assault on Rand. “A Rand Revival“ is a warmed-over iteration of her March 2005 “Ayn Rand at 100,” in Reason Magazine: Rand was wrong, and her philosophy is impractical; she had a totalitarian streak, and it shows in her uncompromising philosophy. Like her conservative counterparts, she frets over the “extremism” of Objectivism. After alternately praising and condemning Rand, Young concludes in her Reason “tribute”:

From yet another perspective, Rand can be seen as a great eccentric thinker and writer whose work is less about a practical guide to real life than about a unique, individual, stylized vision, a romantic vision that transforms and transcends real life.


Before repeating from her Reason article her concerns about the Taggart Tunnel disaster and the fate of the passengers, whom she did not believe deserved such an end, Young claims in “A Rand Revival” that

Rand's work also has a darker, more disturbing aspect--one that, unfortunately, is all too good a fit for this moment in America's political life. That is her intellectual intolerance and her tendency to demonize her opponents.


This is in the “tradition” of Rand’s detractors, begun by Whittaker Chambers, an early neoconservative, and Granville Hicks, a communist: to demonize her by painting her as half-human (she had her good points!) and half-gargoyle (she was domineering, nasty, dogmatic, no exemplar of her “extremist“ philosophy, a crypto-fascist, a closet Stalinist, etc.! How can any mature person take her seriously?).

Daniels, who hardly mentions Heller or her biography at all in his article (and misspells her first name), is not on the same page as Young, but on the next one:

Although she wrote in English, and her two most famous books are American in subject matter and location, she remained deeply Russian in outlook and intellectual style to the end of her days. America could take Rand out of Russia, but not Russia out of Rand. Her work properly belongs to the history of Russian, not American, literature—and nineteenth-century Russian literature at that.


Daniels asserts that Rand’s literary and philosophical importance is in the minor Russian “tradition” of Dobrolyubov, Pisarev, and Chernyshevsky, without offering any evidence of those writers’ positions or even explaining who they were. This is inexcusable name-dropping. He repeats the oft-made charge that her literary heroes are “Nietzschean in inspiration.” Furthermore, he asserts,

The only other tradition known to me that shares this unfortunate combination of characteristics is that of the German materialists of the second half of the nineteenth century such as Moleschott and Buchner.


Really? What characteristics were they? And who were Moleschott and Buchner? What did they say? Daniels does not deign to enlighten us. After all, if the reader does not know who those writers were, it must be a sign of his cultural illiteracy for not having glommed the significance of those obscure writers. It isn’t his fault that most readers do not boast degrees in Russian and German studies.

While both critics labor to demonstrate that Ayn Rand is philosophically and literarily insignificant, or at least a cultural anomaly, the response to the Daniels and Young articles, as well as to Roger Kimball’s encomium must have startled the editors of The New Criterion and Real Clear Politics, proving that she is both philosophically and literarily of importance enough that so many readers have something to say about her.

With that, among many of the fine and well-articulated defenses of Rand, I offer one of the best responses to the Daniels article, by “PeterM.”

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE EDITORS AT THE NEW CRITERION

It must now be surely clear to Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball that they erred first in soliciting Anthony Daniels to write such an thoroughly incoherent hit job on Ayn Rand, and then doubly so for publishing such a transparently dishonest smear of Ayn Rand. If Ayn Rand is the “Chernyshevsky of individualism” then the New Criterion has become the National Inquirer of sophisticated public taste. And of course the smears continue in the “comments” section, where several seminar trolls continue to peddle the tiresome and banal talking points from William F. Buckley’s “Anti-Rand Playbook.”

The real story here is not Daniels’ all-too-predictable distortions and lies, nor is it the psycho-autobiographical character of Daniels’ self-revelations. No, what’s most interesting about the Daniels piece is that it represents the final, last gasp attempt by conservatives and neoconservatives to purge Ayn Rand from the “minds and hearts” of millions of ordinary Americans who regard her as America’ greatest defender of freedom, individual rights, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism.

In just the last couple of years, in ways that could only be characterized as eerily similar, the New Criterion, the Weekly Standard, City Journal, and Commentary have all put out a “hit” on Ayn Rand and all basically say the very same thing. It’s as though a small faction of conservative and neoconservative “intellectuals” have agreed that they’ll all borrow (i.e., plagiarize) from the same playbook.

And as Daniels frankly admits, he and all the other conservative Thought Police don’t and can’t understand why Ayn Rand is popular with so many non-intellectual, regular conservatives and libertarians (and even a few liberals). They don’t even try. Their disconnect from the values or ordinary Americans is breathtaking. It should be obvious to all by now that the attacks on Ayn Rand by certain elements within the conservative intellectual movement are motivated primarily by nothing more than fear--and a kind of juvenile fear at that.

In the end, however, it doesn’t matter. Ayn Rand will continue to sell hundreds of thousands of books every year, growing numbers of sophisticated and accomplished intellectuals are taking her very seriously, the Ayn Rand Institute is expanding dramatically its academic programs for high school and college students, there are now over 60 university programs around the country that have courses that include the reading of Atlas Shrugged, and her influence on the grass-roots Tea Party movement is spreading rapidly and deeply.

In the end, it’s much more likely that Commentary, the Weekly Standard, City Journal and National Review will disappear with the rest of the Mainstream before Ayn Rand’s books and ideas will disappear.

Fear not. You see, there is hope after all.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ed, and Peter M., for reading all the attacks on Ayn Rand and giving a coherent, enlightened over-view of the phenomenon. It helps greatly to put them in some perspective.

I think you summed it up well, Ed, in your comment on the Daniels critique, paraphrasing Rostand's Cyrano, why so great a "No"? It corroborates Peter M.'s insight that the movtivation is fear; fear of Rand's ideas, fear of the response people have to her ideas.

What is disturbing is someone of Daniel's ability, who has first-hand insights into psychology, can be so intellectually dishonest in his attack on Rand. His obscure name-dropping, psychologizing of Rand offered as insight, insults offered as criticism, refusal to discuss philosophical ideas, etc., in evaluating Rand and Objectivism undercuts all his other work. It's a tragedy and a loss that a man of ability would be so emotional and subjective in evaluating Ayn Rand.

Roxanne A.

Anonymous said...

Correction: My comment should have read: 'paraphrasing Roxane in Rostand's Cyrano, "Why so great a No?" '

Roxanne A.

clay barham said...

Ayn Rand clears it up for me, which is why I miss the libertarian 19th century true Democrats, the ones who followed Jefferson and Madison and were closest to Rand, not the ones like Obama who now follow Rousseau and Marx, as cited in The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and claysamerica.com.

Neil Parille said...

Ed,

You write:

___

Daniels asserts that Rand’s literary and philosophical importance is in the minor Russian “tradition” of Dobrolyubov, Pisarev, and Chernyshevsky, without offering any evidence of those writers’ positions or even explaining who they were. This is inexcusable name-dropping.

____

Is this any different from Rand, who denounced any number of people (Kant, Hume, Russell, etc.) without much evidence that she studied or understood them?

And just what are the mistakes in the Heller and Burns books?

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

Neil: Rand “denounced” Kant, Hume, Russell, et al. because they are big game, visible to the whole thinking, reading culture. And she didn’t so much “denounce” them as criticize them for contributing to the end of the Enlightenment and the discarding of reason. If one is reading Rand’s nonfiction essays, one would come to them with a knowledge of Kant, Hume and Russell. It wasn’t her task to offer refresher courses in those philosophers. And because she could discuss them and refute their tenets, that’s certainly evidence that she’d read them.

But, who were X, Y, and Z? As I noted in my commentary, one must be a student of Russian or German literature to grasp the relevance (or irrelevance) of Daniels’ reference to them. And, I think it says something about Daniels’ intellectual literacy that he would “name drop” those three Russian journalists/novelists and the two German ones, exhibiting some familiarity with them, but have little or no familiarity with Rand, who is a major American thinker and writer. Kant, Hume and Russell had demonstrable influences on Western culture and the direction it is taking. But X, Y and Z? Perhaps they indeed influenced Russian culture. I don’t know. Daniels offers no proof of it or why Rand is somehow like them. He just makes the assertion and moves on to the next snicker.

As for the errors and hearsay in the Burns and Heller biographies, I’ve discussed these before and won’t wade back into that subject again.

Park said...

Mr. Cline,
Re: the increasing number of hit pieces on AR; Is this an indication that O'ists are encroaching upon what used to be the popular purview of conservatives/the GOP, namely garnering support from people who share a "Garnet Kendrick" sort of character? Or is it merely the conservative institution playing wack-a-mole with any potential rival who manages to get a few minutes on Fox News? After all, the GOP and their water-carriers sometimes (i.e. beginning of election season) spend more time criticizing libertarians and non-traditional Republicans than their actual election opponents.
So, is this trend that you point out a recognition by the "conservative elite" that O'ism is gaining a beachhead into their popular support, or is it just spiteful sparring with an also-ran?

Anonymous said...

Park: As Felix Leiter said to Bond in “Diamonds are Forever”: Nothing propinks like propinquity. Or, as Goldfinger observed to him: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.

Rand has been the object of hits and having cultural establishment contracts put out on her so often, it’s indicative of the fear Daniels, Young and numerous others have had of her, coupled with unadulterated malicious spite, with a dash of envy thrown in. In part, it’s what someone referred to as a cottage industry. What other “conservative” novel is still going strong after half a century? Is Blackford Oakes of William F. Buckley’s “Saving the Queen” remembered by anyone today? When the government-mandated housing bubble burst in 2008, wasn’t it non-Objectivist observers who remarked, “Hey, didn’t that Rand writer predict something like this in that novel of hers?” No matter how much conservatives and libertarians hate Rand, her work and her philosophy stick in their minds over the course of decades. It’s almost a neurosis. And the explanation for it is that they know she’s right, but they have nothing to offer as an alternative. So, off with her head.

They fear Rand’s ascendancy because it threatens to displace their worn-out assurances that God, or tradition, or just picking things out of the air will suffice as a politics. They don’t want people to take her seriously. They bear her malice because her philosophy won’t admit the eclecticism of their alleged moral foundation, which includes concessions to altruism and collectivism and subjectivism. And they envy her for her cultural staying power. J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, or any other establishment novelist you care to name has never been the subject of such vitriolic attacks by them as has been Rand.

The GOP is similarly motivated. They’re bankrupt. Notice how long it’s taken them to realize that the Tea Party movement is real, and to take steps to claim it as their own. Of course they’ll criticize libertarians and “non-traditional” Republicans, because they (wrongly) perceive in them the same threat to their underlying moral philosophy, which they share with actual rivals, the Democrats. But, they let their “button men” -- the intellectuals and pundits -- do the dirty work of preparing the ground for such attacks.

Yes, you could call the "revival" of Rand akin to a beachhead, something like an intellectual D-Day landing. Battles have yet to be fought. And Objectivist writers and thinkers would do well to adopt General Patton's battle strategy (from the movie, the cleaned-up version): Now there's another thing I want you to remember. I don't want to get any messages saying that "we are holding our position." We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we're not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're going to go through him like crap through a goose!

Anonymous said...

"Is this any different from Rand, who denounced any number of people (Kant, Hume, Russell, etc.) without much evidence that she studied or understood them?"

From Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A  p. 123.

Question: Abraham Maslow claims to have found that self-actualizing men-the kind of men you like-were assisted by an altruistic attitude.  Could you comment?

Ayn Rand: I've written countless words on altruism.  I've read such experts on it as Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Marx, and I've opposed their arguments.  I am not interested in Maslow's "arguments", though I know them.  He is so much on the fringe-so primitive and irrelevant- that they're nothing more than arbitrary pronouncements.

Neil Parille said...

Although I'm a critic of Objectivism, I'm the first to admit that much criticism of Rand is unfair. The Cathy Young piece if quite poor. For whatever reason people often find it difficult to fairly discuss ideas with which they agree. Most Christians shake their heads when they read Objectivist critiques of their views, I imagine.

Here are a few reasons why I think Objectivism is an easy target, so to speak.

1. Rand is the greatest thinker since Aristotle. While I admit that she is worth reading and even important, some of the claims about her genius and originality are overstated.

2. Rand is a great novelist and Atlas Shrugged is the greatest work of fiction ever. Like many people I enjoy The Fountainhead but think AS brought out some of her worst tendencies, such as using characters as a soap box. When I compare Rand and Rudyard Kipling I have to say there is no comparison.

3. Rand's style. It strikes me as hectoring in the extreme and does to many others as well. Of course that doesn't mean someone should call her a "fascist" or "totalitarian."

4. Rand's life. Unless Burns and Heller got it completely wrong, Rand had a cruel and eccentric side and encouraged what, with some exaggeration, might be called a "cult." Daniels might not know the controversy about Rand's character, but isn't he entitled to rely on book(s) written by people who (unlike the Brandens) were not insiders who split with Rand?

5. Rand's movement. The denunciations of fellow advocates (Peikoff's attack on Gotthelf's 2000 book Ayn Rand for example), the splits, Harry Binswanger's loyalty oath, the rewriting of Rand's journals and other material (first revealed by Burns) to conform to Rand's reports about herself, etc. make Objectivism look a little eccentric.

6. Altruism. Rand's jeremiad against altruism just doesn't "resonate" with most people. For example, in Burns' book there is a mention of Rose Wilder Lane. Lane grew up on the frontier when people just "helped out." She could never understand why all behavior should be motivated by self-interest.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Thanks for your reference to Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A p. 123. That and the obvious scope of Rand's writing prove that she indeed had read her philosophical antipodes.

Neil: I can't counter any of your latest objections without writing a book in rebuttal.

Andrew Joseph said...

I'll take a crack at it, though I don't consider myself to be an expert on the subject...

1. "Rand is the greatest thinker since Aristotle."
Can we not take this with a grain of salt? I don't accept this is as a valid criticism of objectivism at all. Some people think Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitar play of all time. Even if this were true, how would one "prove" it? Further, in all of my objectivist reading, I've yet to encounter the phrase, "Rand is the greatest thinker since Aristotle." Perhaps I'm wrong there.

2. "Rand is a great novelist and Atlas Shrugged is the greatest work of fiction ever."
Again, you're using things people may or may not have said *about* objectivism as a critique of objectivism. This does not constitute a critique of anything but certain individuals, not the philosophy of objectivism.

3. "Rand's style."
Another non-critique-of-objectivism critique. Do you not like her choice of clothing either? What does it matter?

4. "Rand's life."
I'm not concerned with Rand's life, I'm concerned with my own. Countless brilliant minds have lived eccentric, dramatic lives. This does nothing to demean their work. I've heard Chevy Chase is an arrogant bastard. I still think Caddyshack is a funny movie. End of story.

5. "Rand's movement."
This too is not a critique of objectivism, but your opinion concerning a handful of individuals.

6. "Altruism."
Self sacrifice is not good. Rand's view of altruism doesn't "resonate" with most people because those people have a confused view of her ideas. "I can't believe she was totally against charity and helping people!" Wrong. She was against the morality of self sacrifice, forced self sacrifice in particular.
Here's a decent explanation: http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth--2129-brotherskeeper.aspx

Anonymous said...

Andrew Joseph: Thanks for taking a "crack" at rebutting Neil Parille's nit-picking. I'm not interested in addressing every little picayune, inconsequential objection someone may have about Rand or the philosophy. Some readers here think it's my job (or Rand's) to make a career of persuading everyone under the sun of the complete totality of Objectivism. Rand herself commented on this phenomenon, about individuals who expected her to answer every contingency and objection and grain of sand until they're convinced, and then they'd concede that she was right and all would be copacetic. Where's the trade? I see none in it for me.

Ed

Anonymous said...

I will take a crack at

"6. Altruism. Rand's jeremiad against altruism just doesn't "resonate" with most people. For example, in Burns' book there is a mention of Rose Wilder Lane. Lane grew up on the frontier when people just "helped out." She could never understand why all behavior should be motivated by self-interest."

I wonder if Lane and most other people understand the difference between altruism and kindness or generosity?

For Ayn Rand's elaboration on this issue see p. 27 and 28 of Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A.

On p. 28, Ayn Rand states,

"The essence of altruism is self-sacrifice.  If you do something for another that involves harm to yourself, that is altruism.  But voluntarily giving something to another who hasn't earned it is not.  That's morally neutral.  You may or may not have a good reason for doing it.  As a principle, nobody would think of forbidding all voluntary giving.  Judging what giving is proper depends on the context of the situation-on the relationship of the two persons involved.  Moreover, the act of giving is the least important act in life.  This is not where one begins a discussion of morality or politics."  

Rick Wilmes


 

Neil Parille said...

Ed and others,

1. Do you approve of what Harriman and Mayhew have done to Rand's written and spoken words, apparently with Peikoff's approval? If you want to see what Mayhew has done, here is a link:

http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=7801&st=280&p=90569&fromsearch=1&#entry90569

Isn't rewriting the record a little "cultish"?

2. A. Gotthelf reports that he once said to Rand, "you've done for consciousness what Aristotle did for existence." Rand responded "that's true." If Rand was the greatest philosopher since Aristotle and Atlas Shrugged the greatest work of fiction (as Andrew Bernstein and other Objectivists have said), that puts her up there with Newton and Einstein. Again, I like Rand and consider her important but that's extreme.

3. I agree that Rand's life is of secondary importance to her ideas. A very flawed person can come up with good ideas, but let's remember what she said: "my life is a postcript to my novels -- and I mean it" (or words to that effect). She also said that she was a completely integrated person. If, as it appears, she faked reality when it came to her husband, broke with people for petty reasons, and was cruel that tends to undercut Objectivism on her terms.

-Neil Parille

3rdparty said...

Neil wrote:

2. A. Gotthelf reports that he once said to Rand, "you've done for consciousness what Aristotle did for existence." Rand responded "that's true."

This crucial identification IS commensurate with Aristotle's achievement; why should the recognition of that fact be considered "extreme"?

If you truly want to know the extent of Ayn Rand's accomplishments, check out Harry Binswanger's talk 'Ayn Rand's Achievements', available in audio format. If you've actually read much of Rand's non-fiction works, you will understand the breathtaking scope of her discoveries and identifications, as enumerated by Mr. Binswanger. He was not exaggerating, or being "cultish".

3rdparty said...

Also -- how does editing for clarity become "cultish"?

Neil Parille said...

Mr. Third Party,

If Harry Binswanger thinks that Rand's ideas are epic and can be defended then he should publish a book or journal article defending this thesis. (I gather he is working on a book). It is unreasonable for Rand's defenders to expect her critics to respond to material in audio format.

I have no problem with editing for clarity, but the editing goes beyond that. Jennifer Burns reports that even ARI scholars are upset.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

Neil Parille has nothing of value to offer us here and it would be best to completely ignore him. I look at what he has written in his various online efforts and I see little more than cheap pot-shots against Objectivism. If he claims that the writers here have a vested interest in promoting Objectivism, well, one would hope given that the blog plainly exists to apply Rand's philosophy to current events. In contrast, Parille's interest seems little more than rehashing the various smears put forth from the Brandon's. He should take his act somewhere else, and saving that, we should ignore him.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, 3rd party: Ignoring Parille is why I've not said anything more about Rand here. I'm not in the business of devoting my mind and energies to convincing detractors when attempts at persuasion are futile, impossible, or pointless. The dog may chase its own tail. Amusing at first, but old by the second act. Thank you, gentlemen, for your assistance. It is much appreciated.

Ed

Robert Campbell said...

3rdParty,

On the Objectivist Living site, you can find verbatim transcriptions of a number of Ayn Rand's spoken comments.

I invite you to compare these with the renditions that appeared in Robert Mayhew's book Ayn Rand Answers and explain how all of Dr. Mayhew's editing was merely done for clarity.

Robert Campbell

Joseph Kellard said...

"In just the last couple of years, in ways that could only be characterized as eerily similar, the New Criterion, the Weekly Standard, City Journal, and Commentary have all put out a 'hit' on Ayn Rand and all basically say the very same thing. It’s as though a small faction of conservative and neoconservative 'intellectuals' have agreed that they’ll all borrow (i.e., plagiarize) from the same playbook.


" ... In the end, it’s much more likely that Commentary, the Weekly Standard, City Journal and National Review will disappear with the rest of the Mainstream before Ayn Rand’s books and ideas will disappear."

Actually, the New York Sun, a conservative newspaper, printed a commentary on Ayn Rand that smeared her here until Friday. I believe this was around 2005, during the celebration of her centennial. The New York Sun disappeared a few years later.:)

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

I particularly enjoyed reading this one. Good job, Ed.

-Francis

Billy Beck said...

Parille: "2. A. Gotthelf reports that he once said to Rand, 'you've done for consciousness what Aristotle did for existence.'"

I wish I'd said that. It's true.

"If Rand was the greatest philosopher since Aristotle and Atlas Shrugged the greatest work of fiction (as Andrew Bernstein and other Objectivists have said), that puts her up there with Newton and Einstein."

{shrug} Okay, have it your way. I'm not aware that Newton or Einstein wrote fiction at all, nevermind anything on the scale of "Atlas", but I'll stipulate to your comparison.

To my mind, the "Epistemology" is the premier achievement in all of 20th century philosophy, at the very least.

"Extreme"? Perhaps, but you know what? It really is possible to work on the scale that we're talking about and she did it. If this be extremism, then make the most of it.

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