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.