So I write a post about the current state of the atheist movement, about certain people who seem to embody what is wrong with it, and how I am frightened that the failure of the atheist movement to stand up to the menace of Islam is driving people into the ranks of some very frightening types indeed.
And in a half-sentence aside I mention that I am glad for my education at the hands of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and that that has protected me from falling into that trap.
Go on, guess which fifteen words out of over two thousand people have been focusing on.
There is something about just mentioning Ayn Rand’s name that causes people to freak the hell out. It is a cue for people to start on about how she is absolutely terrible, utterly childish, nothing good there at all – and these people will go on about this for length, IRL, and online, and reassuring each other over and over again that, of course, they are too intelligent to take her seriously.
Notice that this condemnation is always absolute. It’s never “Well, she had a few good ideas, but…” Or “I can see where she was coming from, but…”. It is always absolute, utter condemnation.
Pause and reflect how utterly weird this is. I do not know of any other thinker who inspires this kind of a reaction. Just about every other thinker gets at least a modicum of consideration, no matter what. For example, here we have the BBC giving a thoughtful treatment of Karl Marx, never mind the horrors his ideas inspired. You will routinely have people talking thoughtfully about the “contributions” Mohammed made, never mind the fact that the guy was a rapist war criminal. For that matter, even out and out fascist and fascist-inspired thinkers get a more respectful treatment in some quarters than does Rand.
In fact, we live in the time when a spokewoman for the President of the United States can openly praise the greatest mass murder of the twentieth century:
Yet it is Ayn Rand who is universally reviled.
It’s not even the usual intellectual lightweights you can find online that have this tick. The Hitch fell into exactly this trap, even though he had no problems defending and praising Trotsky, the hero of Kronstadt, who was very much the architect of the Red Terror that would one day claim him.
Odd, don’t you think? And what is even odder is that, for some reason, people slamming Rand can never bring themselves to state her views accurately. For some reason people feel the need to focus on her prose, or her childhood, or some nonessential detail in her novels, or even what she scribbled in the margins of a book she was reading. Never – never – the points that stand at the absolute core of her philosophy.
Which is weird. When I wrote my anti-racialist Q & A, I had no problems with representing the racialist views to the best of my ability. I’ve even put up links to racialist responses. I’ve never felt that afraid of accurately representing even the views that are the absolute opposite of mine.
One of my readers – a rather vulgar type – has done me the favour of posting a whole swathe of such examples, himself being a particularly ripe one. A full response to all of them would take more time than is available to me, so I think I will focus on another article, posted by a far more courteous commenter. It’s by the MIT professor Scott Aaronson, and it demonstrates just how even the most intelligent seem to fall prey to this tick, this need to utterly condemn Rand while simultaneously skittering away from what she actually believed and taught. I hope that with his own recent experiences of being misrepresent, he learns to knock this off.
Now at the start, I have to acknowledge that Rand had some very odd ideas. For example, she believed that the United States should never have gone into Vietnam, but being in there, a retreat would unleash slaughter beyond words, that the increase in government power would principally benefit corrupt megacorps and bent politicians, that the US conservatives compromise with racism would destroy them, that permitting Saudi Arabia to nationalize (steal) US oil extraction equipment and companies would lead to nothing but grief, as it placed vast wealth into the hands of backward theocrats, that Henry Kissinger was the worst secretary of state the US ever had, that US foreign policy is pragmatic, short sighted and disastrous both for the US and the world….
(Okay, I know sarcasm is the foe of a good argument, but there are times when it is hard to avoid them).
I’m going to focus on his list of ten things that he says Atlas Shrugged missed, that are fatal flaws in it.
1. Recent technologies. For a novel set in the future, whose whole point is to defend capitalism, technology, innovation, and industry, Atlas is startlingly uninterested in any technologies being developed at the time it was written (the fifties). For Rand, the ultimate symbol of technological progress is the railroad—though she’s also impressed by steel mills, copper mines, skyscrapers, factories, and bridges. Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways seem entirely absent from her universe, while nuclear energy (which no one could ignore at the time) enters only metaphorically, through the sinister “Project X.”
Let me take another book for a second – The War in the Air by H.G. Wells. It’s a real howler. Wells seriously thinks that a world war could be fought with airships and kites. There’s not that much about modernized warfare in it. As technological speculation, even from 1907, it does nothing – the only thing it get’s right is Germany launching a surprise attack with unexpected ruthlessness in order to quickly secure a decisive victory, but this doesn’t quite work, and things spiral out of control and into a conflagration that drags in the rest of the world, as far away as China and Japan.
Or another book by him, War of the Worlds. Again, scientific poppycock. Even in his time he must have been able to speculate that all that stuff about martian invaders with heat rays is nuts. I mean, where does he get the idea of invaders who are so removed from the natives, and so much more powerful, that they are able to kill and dominate with complete impunity, until diseases they are not adapted to wipe them all out?
Aldiss once remarked that “Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts”. The depressing thing is that I think Aaronson gets that. I can’t imagine him panning, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four on the grounds that we have no telescreens. But when it comes to Rand, usual standards go out the window.
2. Curiosity about the physical universe. […]In Atlas, Rand finally supplies an answer to this question, in the form of Dr. Robert Stadler. It turns out that in Rand’s eschatology, academic scientists are the worst evil imaginable: people smart enough to see the truth of her philosophy, but who nevertheless choose to reject it. Science, as a whole, does not come off well in Atlas: the country starves while Stadler’s State Science Institute builds a new cyclotron; and Dr. Floyd Ferris, the author of obscurantist popular physics books, later turns into a cold-blooded torturer. (That last bit, actually, has a ring of truth to it.)
Anyone who seriously thinks that Robert Stadler is the “worst evil imaginable” in the book really, really isn’t paying attention. But leaving that aside, Stadler is not reviled for rejecting her philosophy, but for allowing his tremendous science (which Rand does, incidentally, celebrate) to be put at the mercy of a fascistic government.
As regards evil, in her article To Young Scientists Ayn Rand explained this as follows: She had absolute respect for those of us who devote our lives to the pursuit of science, but she warned that this did not permit us to ignore ethics and social obligations. The way she put it is as follows:
“Imagine a soldier who says his only business is war. He is not interested in politics or ethics or anything else, just perfecting his art of war, and is willing to put his services to any government against any enemy. Imagine what we would think of such a person. But that soldier would not be responsible for the thousandth part of what a scientist would be, who declared himself ‘above the conflict’ and put a formula or equation into the wrong hands”.
Crazy, huh? And if you want a real-life parallel to Stadler, consider the case of Werner Heisenberg. Do her views become a little more understandable, when you consider the fact that one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century was willing, in exchange for being able to pursue his research, to try and make an atomic bomb for Adolph Hitler? And that is even before I comment on those who did hand nuclear weapons to Joseph Stalin.
3. Family.Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957. The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it)
Not exactly true. In Galt’s Gulch there is a description of a mother who fled there, in the hopes of providing a decent world for her children. One of the reasons that Francisco D’Aconia says he is doing what he is doing is for future generations, for a world where children are able of having a future that isn’t absolute slavery.
4. “Angular,” attractive people who also happen to be collectivists, or “shapeless” people who happen to be rational individualists. In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain
False. Mike from The Fountainhead is a hero and described as ugly. Fred Kinnan is described as attractive in a rugged way and is a villain in Atlas Shrugged, and the aforementioned Floyd Ferris is described as attractive (admittedly, like “a gigolo”).
5. Personalities. In Atlas, as in The Fountainhead, each character has (to put it mildly) a philosophy, but no personality independent of that philosophy, no Objectively-neutral character traits. What, for example, do we know about Howard Roark? Well, he has orange hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant architect and defender of individualism. What do we know about John Galt? He has gold hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant inventor and defender of individualism. Besides occupation and hair color, they’re pretty much identical. Neither is suffered to have any family, culture, backstory, weaknesses, quirks, or even hobbies or favorite foods (not counting cigarettes, of course). Yes, I know this is by explicit authorial design. But it also seems to undermine Rand’s basic thesis: that Galt and Roark are not gods or robots, but ordinary mortals.
You can – just about, if you stretch yourself quite a bit – make that claim about Galt and Roark (given that The Fountainhead is about Roark’s life, I’m not sure how that works, but let it pass). Here are some characters you absolutely cannot say that about: Fred Kinnan, Orren Boyle, Francisco D’Acconia, Hank Rearden. Dagny Taggart, Mike, Robert Stadler, Eddie Willers, “the Wet Nurse”, Wesley Mouch, Peter Keating, Dominique Francon, Steven Mallory, Austin Heller…
6. Positive portrayal of uncertainty. In Atlas, “rationality” is equated over and over with being certain one is right. The only topic the good guys, like Hank and Dagny, ever change their minds about is whether the collectivists are (a) evil or (b) really, really evil. (Spoiler alert: after 800 pages, they opt for (b).) The idea that rationality might have anything to do with being uncertain—with admitting you’re wrong, changing your mind, withholding judgment—simply does not exist in Rand’s universe.
Again, false. There whole point about the book is a struggle of people to realize a fundamental error that has wrecked the world. And the absence of certainty only flies if you ignore characters like “the West Nurse” or “Eddie Willers”.
7. Honest disagreements. Atlas might be the closest thing ever written to a novelization of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem. In RandLand, whenever two rational people meet, they discover to their delight that they agree about everything
Again, false. One of the biggest arcs in Atlas Shrugged is the violent, often literally violent, disagreement between Rearden and Francisco.
To underline this point that, for some reason, many have a thing about accurately representing her philosophy, here is a quote from Galt’s Speech – the founding text of Objectivism:
Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience-that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible-that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. In place of your dream of an omniscient automation, accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory.
That is one of those things that never seem to get mentioned by people slamming Rand.
8. History. When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, there was one detail that kept bothering me: the fact that it was published in 1943. At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic?
True, Ayn Rand does seem out of order in her hatred of intellectuals. Here is Fred Kinnan describing intellectuals:
Your kind of intellectuals are the first to scream when it’s safe-and the first to shut their traps at the first sign of danger. They spend years spitting at the man who feeds them-and they lick the hand of the man who slaps their drooling faces. Didn’t they deliver every country of Europe, one after another, to committees of goons, just like this one here? Didn’t they scream their heads off to shut out every burglar alarm and to break every padlock open for the goons? Have you heard a peep out of them since? Didn’t they scream that they were the friends of labor? Do you hear them raising their voices about the chain gangs, the slave camps, the fourteen-hour workday and the mortality from scurvy in the People’s States of Europe? No, but you do hear them telling the whip-beaten wretches that starvation is prosperity, that slavery is freedom, that torture chambers arc brother-love and that if the wretches don’t understand it, then it’s their own fault that they suffer, and it’s the mangled corpses in the jail cellars who’re to blame for all their troubles, not the benevolent leaders! Intellectuals? You might have to worry about any other breed of men, but not about the modern intellectuals: they’ll swallow anything. I don’t feel so safe about the lousiest wharf rat in the longshoremen’s union: he’s liable to remember suddenly that he is a man-and then I won’t be able to keep him in line. But the intellectuals? That’s the one thing they’ve forgotten long ago. I guess it’s the one thing that all their education was aimed to make them forget. Do anything you please to the intellectuals. They’ll take it.”
Here is another quote on them from Atlas Shrugged, even stronger (if you can believe it!):
If given supreme power over the country, I would pardon all the people and even most of the leaders, but I would hang every intellectual in the country and the professors three feet higher than the rest, to be left up as long as public hygiene allows.
I can see what Aaronson means – I mean, that quote is really so out there that…
Oh. Whoops. Sorry, I got my sources wrong. That quote comes from the diaries of the jewish Victor Klemperer, written from the Third Reich ~1943.
The reason Rand made an intellectual newspaper critic her embodiment of evil in The Fountainhead is because she saw plainly that it was the intellectuals who paved the way for the brutes, the ones who installed them on the world. Hitler and his cronies could never, ever have seized power in Germany, nor could the Communists have unleashed their horrors, were it not for the way their way was paved by intellectuals.
Lee Harris writes that the 2oth century was the one ravaged by the intellectuals. In no other century had intellectuals such power to shape the world in the way they wanted. And look what they wrought.
Go back and look at Anita Dunn praising Mao, and tell me that that mentality has vanished. Or how about the following few details:
James Lovelock has said it might be necessary to “put democracy on hold for a while”. Mayer Hillman, senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute in London agres with him.
James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard institute, “Chinese Leadership needed to save humanity”.
David Suzuki, Canada’s famous environmentalist: ““What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there’s a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they’re doing is a criminal act,”
The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman. “One party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today it can also have great advantages”.
As regards the fact that Atlas is set only in the United States – the answer is simple: Owell set totalitarianism in Britain to inform people that, yes, it can happen here. Rand did the same.
9. Efficient evil people. In Atlas, there’s not a single competent industrialist who isn’t also an exemplar of virtue.
True. Rand thought that the increase of government power would lead to a situation where corrupt and venal megacorps got together with bent politician to throttle the honest businessmen and enrich themselves at the price of catastrophe for the rest of the nation.
(Man, that Rand! What a kidder.)
But this cuts right to the heart of her philosophy – she argued that the number of really, truly evil people was vanishingly small. The problem is that too often people who are reasonably decent find themselves sucked into supporting terrible people and evil systems – and often through the best of intentions.
(Again, what a whacky idea!)
Incidentally, that is why one of her heroes in her earlier books was an out and out Communist, one who fought in the Russian revolution.
10. Ethnicity. Seriously: to write two sprawling novels set in the US, with hundreds of characters between them, and not a single non-Aryan?
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.
But since Aaronson is so much worried about Nazism, let me suggest there is a nearer target. I infer from his comment about “Republicans”, he is a Democrat of some description. Well, he might want to think a little more about a party that was notorious for its Nazi sympathizers, was the political wing of the KKK and still defends a chap who is happy to blow up African Pharmacies if it saves his political hide.
Cheap shot? It’s a factually based cheap shot, which is more than I can say for anything he writes about Rand.
However, this does allow me to seague into something Rand got dead wrong. She thought that the rest of the world would fall into collectivism and tyranny until only the United States was left. What we are actually seeing is that all over the world, Rand’s ideas are becoming more and more popular, and more and more capitalist revolutionaries are arising.
[I]t was, and largely still is, U.S. republican doctrine that we Euro-weenies were always gonna be socialist, not like the red blooded, capitalist Americans. Meanwhile, in many ways much of Europe is more free market and less redistributionist than the United States. And if this complaint is true, then why is it that Atlas Shrugged is a best seller in India?
Until 2007, Indians conducted more Google searches for the Russian-American novelist than residents of any other country, and in recent years have ceded the top spot only to Americans.Why do I keep meeting Nigerian Objectivists? Why is it that Africa is now giving rise to capitalist revolutionaries like Dambisa Moyo and Paul Kagame?
I’ve sold many people from the developing world on capitalism with one simple fact: the international order is not capitalistic; it is a socialistic, redistributionist racket designed to completely screw the poorest in the developing world and the average joe in the developed world, for the benefit of no one except corrupt megacorps, tin-pot tyrants, and the collection of anti-globalisation riff-raff that are parasitic off both.
So, a host of non-essential criticisms that completely fail to touch the core of Rand’s ideas, and still manage to be completely wrong. I return to my point : What is it about Rand that inspires such hysteria, coupled with an unwillingness to accurately portray what she wrote and argued? Why, if she is so obviously, clearly, and demonstrably wrong, is that necessary?