Thursday, February 05, 2015

Ayn Rand was not erudite

I bought "Radicals for Capitalism, A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement" by Brian Doherty and read a fair amount of it yesterday. 

For some reason I thought this would be an even-handed view of libertarianism, perhaps due to the word "freewheeling" but Doherty is a true believer, a senior editor at the Koch brothers-funded Reason magazine, and a big fan of Ayn Rand. 

You can tell he's in the Objectivist tank because he makes the usual complaint made by Rand fans and followers - poor Ayn Rand was misunderstood and disrespected - with the implication that the cause is liberals who are just too stupid to get Rand. 

This Randroid attitude is possible thanks to Objectivists' mind-boggling obtuseness. Here Doherty gripes about philosophers' attitude towards Rand:
Rarely do other philosophers comment on her without hostility or incomprehension. The first instance of measured criticism was an edited volume by Den Uyl and Rasmussen with critiques and commentary on Rand by a variety of scholars, most of them disagreeing with her conclusions or methods. But the book at least treats her as a fellow player in the philosophy game. Barbara Branden says that she knew NBI's main goal had been achieved when Rand's New York Times obituary called her a "novelist and philosopher." It is not an honor many professional philosophers would grant Rand.
What Doherty neglects to mention - deliberately or out of standard Objectivist obtuseness I cannot say - is that Rand refused to participate in any of the scholarship required of professional philosophers. In her delusional arrogance she thought she would simply be accepted as a philosopher, since her sycophants had declared her to be one, and because she wrote a shitty sci-fi fantasia of a novel that sold well. Her one-time friend (until she ex-communicated him for publicly disagreeing with her) the philosopher John Hospers wrote:
I told her that if she wanted to become known in philosophical circles, she should write a piece or two and submit it to the Journal of Philosophy or the Philosophical Review or the Review of Metaphysics. After its publication, I said, it would be studied, commented on, and probably criticized. She would then respond to these criticisms, which again would evoke more from others, and at that point, I said, "I guarantee that you will be known as a philosopher." But she never did this. She did not want to enter the arena of public give-and-take with them. She wanted them to come to her. What she wanted of philosophers, other than recognition, is not easy to say. I am sure she would have cursed them soundly if they offered criticisms. Even a mild criticism would often send her to the stratosphere in anger. 
Doherty's own incomprehension is apparent when he writes:
Many may identify themselves with Roark and Galt without the real stuff to back it up, which is the root of the popular disdain for the Randroid; a Roark type who isn't actually an accomplished genius can be insufferable.
This is a perfect description of Rand herself. She claimed that she and her husband and the Brandens were the living embodiments of the Ubermensch "producers" in Atlas Shrugged, at war with the "second-hander" moochers and parasites. Meanwhile Rand got almost all her understanding of philosophy second-hand, and Doherty knows this, and yet that somehow still doesn't give him a clue. He writes:
Rand was not erudite; most of her education in contemporary philosophy came from things she was told by philosopher friends, like Peikoff or John Hospers (before he was banished.) Modern culture, except for her beloved detective and adventure novels, drove her to fits. She didn’t read much, and most of what she knew about the world in the last decades of her life came from the New York Times. Her library, Hessen recalls, consisted largely of “books autographed and sent to her from other Random House authors, like Dr. Seuss or whatever, and books from research done in connection with railroads or architecture or steel. She never went to bookstores.
"Not erudite" is an understatement. This is a woman with pretensions to philosophy, and yet she utterly lacked intellectual curiosity and made no effort to read anything but pulp fiction. There are cab drivers and domestic workers who read more widely than Ayn Rand did. 

Another is-it-deliberate-or-not sign of Doherty's obtuseness is his apparent mystification over why Rand's work provokes the response that it does, even from conservatives:
Still, critics such as Whittaker Chambers (and many other Rand critics share this view) who hear in Rand's writings a stern voice commanding "To a gas chamber - go!" are themselves revealing a crabbed sensibility.
This isn't the first time I've wondered if a Randroid has actually read "Atlas Shrugged." 

The reason Chambers said that is because in one chapter of the novel Rand literally sends characters she hates - she lists their sins against Objectivism - into a tunnel full of carbon monoxide. Then she blows up the train. And the cause of the disaster is a politician who is trying to get to a voter rally on time - apparently Rand's dystopia is a fully-functional democracy. And the sins against Objectivism include taking a government loan to start a business, writing a play that criticizes businessmen and being married to a man with a government job - Rand kills the woman and her children too for that sin. 

Rand was a deranged extremist, and you have to wonder what is wrong with people like Doherty that they don't get that.

One of the favorite Rand-fan defenses against her critics is to mention how well "Atlas Shrugged" sells, as if popularity indicates excellence. Doherty:
Her books continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year and will continue to enthrall future generations - and continue to lead a certain savvy percentage to appreciate the necessity of personal liberty and limited government.
I wouldn't be so quick to crow about the popularity of Rand's work, if I was her fans. The Bible is consistently the top book listed as a favorite of Americans. Rand herself was an  atheist (I like to think that besides her love of cats, it's the only thing we have in common), and I would argue that the continuing greater popularity of the Bible over Atlas Shrugged merely indicates that Shrugged doesn't have quite as much mythology, right-wing wishful thinking and violence to satisfy the ignorant and the stupid as well as the Bible does. But you can't fault Rand for not trying.

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