Thursday, March 12, 2009

Back To The Turd Mines Pt. 1

All this talk of turds brings something to mind.

When I was in my late twenties, I read "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand, because a friend had been enthusiastic about it. First I was turned off because the writing wasn't very good. It was cliched and melodramatic, something my writing teacher would have torn apart. The characters were one-dimensional, like cartoon figures, and the narrative was clunky and preachy. But something else bothered me as I got deeper into the book. I was starting to get the creeps about Ayn's vision of utopia as she saw it. Her heroines were golden, perfect and extremely successful. I began to notice that none of them had to deal with the real-life issues that plague mere mortals. No sickness, disease, disability, no unexpected family crises, no emotional or mental problems, no addictions, no depression, no self-doubt or uncertainty. These people resembled some form of idealized human. What gave me a sick feeling was the way these high achievers were nearly set apart as some sort of master race. It seemed like a fantasy, but one that Ayn Rand took seriously as a standard that humans should live up to. She seemed to have contempt for the common man with human frailties.

I did some more reading about Ayn Rand and her philosophies during that period, and found her way of thinking largely repugnant. Ayn believed that "rational self-interest" was the highest moral value. Because we have needs and desires, fulfilling them is rational, and the only true moral good. She denounced altruism, saying that making a sacrifice for others was to give up a higher value for a lesser one. She wrote disparagingly about those who "live their lives through others" by sacrificing for others. Apparently Mother Theresa was a fool. She decried any motivation besides self-interest as being parasitic. Had she walked the earth with Jesus, she would have found him and his teachings pathetic.

Rand clearly missed out on the human experience. She doesn't get what it is to be human at all. If that seems like an overstatement, consider her funeral, where a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket, as she had requested.

Rand's philosophy limits humans to a very narrow level of experience. We may choose to make a sacrifice in the interest of justice, peace, love, community, compassion, service, because we experience something within ourselves, or we experience a connection with others, that goes beyond rationality. Rand, who did not believe in God or spirituality of any kind, would have dismissed this as some sort of psychological weakness.

Rand's argument is on shaky ground, because it seems that sharing her philosophy with the unwashed masses goes against her self-interest, if it persuades them to give up their parasitic self-sacrifice in pursuit of unbridled success. Thus empowered, they could pose a competitive threat to her.

But there is another flaw in Rand's over-simplified view of her achiever class and their heroic success, as depicted in Atlas Shrugged. She writes about these titans as if they are producing and industrializing and creating their wealth in a vacuum. As if the only well they have drawn from is their own private one. But since they are not truly gods, the reality is they have created and produced by using an interconnected web of resources like the rest of us. A web that includes highway systems and telephone lines and power grids, and intangible things like communication, social stability, and the protection of laws. They operate from a field of cultural and educational and political influences that exist in a democracy. And their ascent relies on an army of working class people who pick the tomatoes, harvest the crops, collect the garbage, empty the bed pans, nurse the sick, repair the bridges, drive the trucks, ship the freight, clean the offices, teach the population who will grow into paying customers. There is no extracting them from the complex interweaving of societal forces that have made their rise to power possible. They are not an island to themselves, producing in isolation. To suggest that they are is ludicrous.

Yet this Randian idea is still being waved around, much to my dismay. Rep. John Campbell, who thinks that Obama's policies are aimed at punishing the high achievers, suggests that the creators of "all the things that benefit the rest of us" may go on strike, Rand-style:

"People are starting to feel like we’re living through the scenario that happened in 'Atlas Shrugged," said Campbell. "The achievers, the people who create all the things that benefit [the] rest of us, are going on strike. I’m seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs, the people who create wealth, who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they’ll be punished for them."

There is a good response to this, put more eloquently than I could by a political blogger named Hunter. Since it is rather long, I will post it as Pt. 2., below this post.


  1. I read The Fountainhead recently. I agree, Rand was not a great writer, though in

    that book I think she managed to create some interesting characters. Rand had an

    almost embarrassing way of worshipping at the altar of human achievement -- well,

    certain kinds of achievement, that is. Skyscrapers, rocketships, these were things

    to marvel at; teaching people how to create a sustainable agriculture, not so much.

    Rand also failed to perceive the interconnected web on which all of life depends;

    she failed to find any humility in the fact that it took us millions of years to

    evolve to this point, an achievement for which none of us can take any credit.

    To be fair, Rand may not have been a total elitist; that is, I think perhaps she

    wanted to portray her heroes as doing their great deeds FOR the rest of mankind,

    sort of as mankind's representatives, to show what we were all capable of. But it

    still seems like a misplaced sense of pride. The other day I read a horrifying

    story: there's a nuclear waste dump with 1000 tons of highly radioactive material

    just a few hundred yards away from one of the Great Lakes. Our penchant for creating

    huge disasters would suggest we spend less time worshipping the human spirit and more time cleaning up our messes.

  2. Good lord, which great lake is that? Excellent point about spending less time worshipping the human spirit and more time cleaning up our messes. Another embarrassing way Ayn worshipped --the women in her books were overtaken physically by these powerful men in a rough way. They resist, but then afterwards are grateful. WTF??