Thursday, July 19, 2012

RAND SHRUGGED, pt 1 (Understanding Rand)

"My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Early in the book Atlas Shrugged is this section that shows the strength and effectiveness of Ayn Rand's writing:
The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot on the Taggart estate. Eddie Willers, age seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree's presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.

One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside — just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.

Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal — the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, not his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.
The tree is a symbol of America, and its demise of how something so great, so powerful, so noble, and so seemingly invincible can be rotted from within and destroyed almost imperceptibly. This is one of the most effective allegories I've ever read, and it is a testament to Rand's writing talent. Reading that section sends chills down my spine at how painfully accurate it is at describing America right now.

The only Rand book I've read through is The Fountainhead, which I also saw in movie form. Although it was a bit long on some of the exposition it was well written and entertaining. Rand's strength is that she was able to visualize and express concepts on paper that were intangible, she was able to give philosophy more easily accessible form in novel.

The only other writer I know of with this skill (and, I'd argue, was better at it) was C.S. Lewis. But unlike Lewis, Rand set out to convince and express her worldview and ideas in the form of a novel; C.S. Lewis rarely did this. His work was about telling stories, but his Christian worldview was so formative and foundational that it showed through in every effort.

Rand's philosophy was new enough that most readers, particularly those reading The Fountainhead and Anthem, didn't catch on to exactly what she meant. And, to be honest, the places she explained more expressly were so long and often dry that I think a lot of people skimmed it. In the movie version of Fountainhead, Gary Cooper delivers a fairly lengthy speech at his trial, but in the book, the speech goes on for several dozen pages. There is a lot of repetition and reiteration of concepts that Rand condensed admirably to a far more palatable form in the screenplay.

Rand's editor begged and begged her to cut down the extremely long speeches and explanations in Atlas Shrugged because he argued that she had already said and explained everything a good half dozen times previous to Galt's big radio address. She refused, this time people were going to get what she was trying to say. This time they would understand.

And still few really did, at the time. The book was reviled by reviewers and mocked by academics, but has sold more copies of any printed book in history than the Bible. Not long ago, academics did a study of 20th century works. They listed James Joyce's Ulysses (I've also not read it) as number one, while Atlas Shrugged didn't even crack the top 100. The public rated books too. Their opinion was almost exactly the opposite. Yet the public didn't quite grasp her objectivist philosophy either. The loved the themes of fighting the government, freedom, independence, and so on, but her overall message of the dangers of collectivism and the need for individual independence were less clear.

Rand sometimes was her own worst enemy. She refused to give even the slightest amount when someone varied slightly from her ideology, and when the movie form of Atlas Shrugged was being worked on (with the producer from the Godfather; starring Clint Eastwood, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Redford, (as John Galt of all people) among others) she demanded total control over the script. When it was pointed out that her book didn't flow well for a film and there would have to be cuts in the speeches, she refused and it fell apart. John Galt's speech is three hours long, and that's simply impossible and unacceptable in a film. Its barely tolerable in a 1200 page book.

Atlas Shrugged is Rand's magnum opus, her greatest and final work. It took her about ten years to write, and she said she just didn't have any more ideas to put down on paper once it was done. The book is essentially science fiction, as most of her books were. Instead of being a romance or a historical novel, it is a predictive book, a warning of what will come if there is no change, and a suggested solution to the problem.

It speculates what would happen when the producers, the creators, and the intelligent of a nation became finally too fed up with their government and society draining them and simply gave up. It shows a world where engineers, workers, captains of industry, everyone who makes things work and gets things done simply gives up and leaves.

All that are left are politicians, lawyers, welfare dependent, the takers and the users of what others develop and give. And they swiftly realize the horror of their world. They are helpless before the winter storms, they are unable to produce food or art or electricity. Things break down, society starts to crumble. Because of this "going Galt," the people who rely on others and do not produce anything for themselves learn they must and everything works out great in the end.

And that's my main problem with Rand's books. Its true she's not trying to write realistic fiction, and she is more interested in teaching than reflecting reality, but in the end, her works are somewhat naive and simplistic. Its true they are deeply complex at a philosophical and intellectual level, but when it comes to human nature and behavior, they are as contrived as any melodrama. Her villains are pure villainy, without particular character quirks or real humanity. Her heroes are endlessly pure and unswerving. They have neither self doubt nor make mistakes. They have no flaws, no quirks, no real humanity either. Both are symbols given the form of a human.

And that would be fine... were Rand writing an allegory, where the characters are mere symbols. She instead is writing cautionary and predictive fiction. Galt and Roark are not just symbols, but they are meant to be ideal humanity. They are how men are supposed to be, the Nietzschean ubermensch of her philosophy (in fact, she has much in common with Nietzsche, more on that later).

In a way, Rand's books remind me of The Watchmen, where Alan Moore suggests his solution to problems. His solution is simplistic and weak; it would collapse within hours rather than lead to the glorious peace and celebration he says. But unlike Rand, Moore at least suggests the possibility that it all falls apart in the end. For Rand, there is an unswerving certainty that following her ideas will absolutely lead to utopia.

Rand's writings have the power and persuasion they do primarily because they are so good at depicting how things will turn out if certain behaviors and ideas are not altered. She writes compellingly of how we have exactly the world that the collectivist left wanted to create and complains about. She shows expertly the horror and tyranny that this ideology inevitably creates, all in the name of doing right and helping the helpless. She shows the evil that collectivism must always become, and why.

I disagree with some parts of Objectivism and Rand's ideology, but she got a lot more right than she got wrong, and her books were terrifyingly accurate prophecies based on her experiences in Soviet Russia when the communists took over.

But before I can get to the good and the bad, I want to address some confusion about Rand and objectivism as a philosophy.

First off, Rand has no problem with helping other people. She believed in charity and kindness. What she did not believe in was compulsory charity or kindness. She did not believe it was the right or proper behavior of anyone, government or individual, to force someone to help others. She believed using guilt, force, or trickery to force charity was evil and destructive to humanity.

So when she talks about selfishness as a virtue, she doesn't mean uncaring behavior. Rand was willing to help others, when she wanted to. And that's something I completely agree with. Charity by its very definition cannot be compulsory. It ceases to be charitable at that point and is merely compulsion. The government or church or society forcing people to help others is wrong, and as it turns out, unBiblical.

Related to this is the misconception that Rand is wholly and completely opposed to the concept of self-sacrifice. This is false. It has to do with how she defines sacrifice, similar to how she defines altruism. She uses the term in a different manner than most people understand. Rand's definition of sacrifice is "the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue." In other words, unworthy sacrifice: giving up something greater for something lesser.

An example is of someone driving to a hospital to save a loved one's life stopping at a traffic accident to see if anyone needs help. To Rand, that is a sacrifice and is improper, even immoral: you should save the loved one and not help the unknown stranger. However, if you help someone in need to your own expense at your own choice, that is an acceptable act, and not a sacrifice, according to Rand.

Another misconception of Rand's ideas is that she thought government was wrong and evil. That is entirely false. She had no problem with small, limited government doing its minimal and proper task. In fact when she first arrived in America, she loved the place and how it worked - back in the 20s. Objectivism is not anarchy, it is the desire for government to be small and restrained.

Like the concept of sacrifice, Rand uses selfishness differently than the dictionary does. Selfishness is not self-centered egotism, it is not cold indifference to the world and heartless regard of self over all the universe. It is the rational self-interest that focuses on your own needs and desires before others. Rand believed that if everyone followed this basic pattern, then no one would be in need or dependent on others. All would be productive and useful. Ayn Rand put it this way:
If [a Machiavellian type] decides to follow his own self-interest but to respect nobody else's, he is no longer on an objective moral base, but on a hedonistic, whim-worshipping base. If so, he has disqualified himself; he is claiming a contradiction. If he wants to maintain rationally his own self-interest, and claim he has a case for his right to self-interest, then he must concede that the ground on which he claims his right to self-interest also applies to every other human being.

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
Selfishness in Rand's system is not thinking only about yourself and happily stepping on others to get what you want. Selfishness as she defines it also recognizes the worth and rational significance of otherpeople. How this works in practice is a topic for later.

Another misconception is that Ayn Rand attacked altruism and benevolence in humanity. This is confusing because altruism is another word that Rand redefined to reject. She understood altruism to mean "one's fundamental moral duty is to serve others." She then attacked this concept, labeling it altruism, which has led to some confusion in both her supporters and detractors. As noted above, Rand did believe in doing good to others, but only in the context of understanding one's primary and importance. You do so out of your own will, primarily to feel good about yourself.

And finally, I want to clarify something about objectivism and absolutism. There is a somewhat childish understanding of this that Christians have to deal with on occasion as well. When someone speaks of "absolutes" they are not talking about total ironclad laws imposed on reality.

When I write about absolute truth, I'm not pretending that situations and ideas change. Absolute truth is not forcing an idea on reality despite its nuances and fluctuations. For example, when I say truth is absolute, that does not mean that truth cannot change. A woman can be pregnant in one point in time, then not pregnant in another. What she cannot be is both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time and in the same context.

Absolutes do not compel reality, but define it. Something is true, when it is true, regardless of your perspective, narrative, background, ethnic history, gender, inclination, or hopes. No matter what you wish and think, no matter how you grew up or what you think of yourself, 2+2 continues to =4. That cannot and will not be changed by your subjective analysis. It simply is.

Absolutes are typically defined by the law of non contradiction, one of the most fundamental laws of logic and reality which is continually under assault these days by people for whom reality keeps interfering with what they wish to be true. The law of non contradiction simply states this: A cannot be non-A. In other words:
Something cannot be both true and untrue in the same context and at the same time
You cannot be both dead and not dead at the same time (Schroedinger's Cat notwithstanding). You cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant at once.

This is one of the three laws of thought which Aristotle identified and codified. They define all logic and reason and express reality. They are fundamental to understanding and the ability to not only think but communicate. These laws are:
  • The law of Identity (A=A)
  • The law of NonContradiction (as explained above)
  • The law of the Excluded Middle (truth is not ambiguous)
Wikipedia actually has a pretty good, simple writeup on these laws. For specific reasons relating to a philosophy which cannot be sustained in reality, all three of these laws are under continual attack by postmodernism. Objectivism did not invent A=A, Rand was simply restating something very ancient and well-understood in past years but recently has been largely lost.

If you've ever wondered why nobody can communicate any longer, why arguments from some people make no sense, and how someone can believe both in Survival of the Fittest and Save the Whales at the same time... rejection of these basic laws is why.

They do not reject complexity and variation, they reject illogic and untruth. They aren't rigidly inflexible, but are descriptive of simply how things work and how they really are. Misunderstanding this leads to a lot of confusion and trouble.

Rand's depiction as a cruel, hateful bitch who wanted the world to be selfish and heartless is not accurate. She wanted the world to make sense, have the maximum amount of freedom, and believed in the supremacy of reason. She thought that if people were rational and more self-interested, then the problems of war, poverty, cruelty, want, and so on would all be eliminated.

In order to prevent this from being 80000 pages long, I'm going to break it up into several sections. Next time: Where Rand Got it Right.

*This is part of a 4 part series on Objectivism and Ayn Rand.


Z Ryan said...

The only Rand book I read was Atlas Shrugged. My dad had never heard of it and I recommended it to him, and he passed it on to my Godfather and it became both their favorite book.

As a Christian, I disagree with some of the foundations of her philosophy, but I definitely see the appeal, especially to the atheist. All of the "I am my own warrent for existence" stuff. Very powerful.

But her ideas of altruism? Of liberty? Of the mechanics of the world? You deny capitalism like you deny gravity.

I have a very staunch atheist girl friend (not girlfriend) who has turned completely Randian as we've grown up. And she holds to all the Randian things that I dismiss, strangely, yet rightly enough. All of her relationship/sexual politics I find to be crap. Sometimes you love a person, and you just love them. And they deserve your love and you're loved back. But in Atlas Shrugged, relationships are all... give and take business relationships. The most intelligent man goes with the most intelligent woman.

My friend has been served well, because her ideas made her think she's a woman of merit and she deserves a man of merit. So she has a successful, kind, intelligent boyfriend.

Just reading your article and writing this, my mind wanders. My brother is also atheist and is so Machiavellian, he struggles to have meaningful relationships. He's flat out told me (but I mostly know this from how he acts), that all relationships, friendships and communications are manipulative and conpetative. Confrontational. It's so weird to see someone not let ANYONE in no matter what, and subscribe to that as a way of life. He doesn't believe in marriage because it's a promise--a promise to love someone in the future, and you can never promise anything for tomorrow. Maybe he won't love this woman tomorrow, or ten years from now, he says.

I get that. But I think it's something you work at and can promise. No matter what, you can determine to never give up.

Concludiing, I do agree with Rand. Except we get our rights from God, not from our inherent existence. And the relationship stuff has never applied to me in my life, or truly what I've observed of anyone else's life. But capitalism? Liberty? The yearning of the human spirit to be free? That's gold.

Z Ryan said...

Oh, and as for Alan Moore and Watchmen? When you look closely, you'll see Moore as a person in there. But his strength is not trying to preach hard. His strength is just trying to reflect people and the world. Reporting what he sees. And that makes it more open to reading by many people than some Lions for Lambs lecture.

He tries to present all of the questions of the world instead of trying to answer them. He's only human, so what he thinks seeps in. but the appeal is just the report, as he sees it.

Jonathan Cook said...

Many thanks for this. I've never read Rand's work directly but have read/heard literally thousands of reviews, musings, references, critiques, etc. of her philosophy.

In my exposure to it I think what kept me from exploring it directly was the idea that the problem with objectivism is ... objectivists. The vast majority I've come across, both on- and offline seem to be very cold fish: dry, passionless, intellectual and philosophical to the point of absurdity, with little apparent appreciation for the wonder and sheer mystery of life, the universe, and everything. I admit this is purely anecdotal, but the tendency is very marked in my personal data sets.

But what has made me rethink my aversion to her work is reading more and more Christians who have a real respect for what she got right. So much so that I intend to go to the source rather than get it second and third hand.

Thanks again, and I look forward to the rest of your posts.