More famous words from one of our wannabe Platonic guardians:
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi looked like a deer caught in the blinding headlight of an oncoming freight train, her expression frozen in either ignorance or fear. It has always been difficult to distinguish between the two in her. But the malice in her words was palpable.
CNSNews.com: “Madam Speaker, where specifically does the Constitution grant Congress the authority to enact an individual health insurance mandate?”
Pelosi: “Are you serious? Are you serious?”
CNSNews.com: “Yes, yes, I am.”
Pelosi then shook her head before taking a question from another reporter. Her press spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, then told CNSNews.com that asking the speaker of the House where the Constitution authorized Congress to mandate that individual Americans buy health insurance was not a “serious question.”
“You can put this on the record,” said Elshami. “That is not a serious question. That is not a serious question.”
His iterating mockery of the reporter is indeed on the record. Elshami, deputy communications director and senior adviser to Pelosi, later issued a press release stating that Congress was empowered by the commerce clause in the Constitution to mandate individual health insurance. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), however, differed from that dubious specificity, instead likening the power to compel all Americans to buy health insurance to federal authority to impose speed limits on interstate highways (???), adding that “nobody questions” Congress’s authority to impose controls of any kind. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) linked the power to the general welfare clause.
All in all, nobody in Congress, it seems, treats questioning Congressional powers as a serious matter. Pelosi, Leahy, Hoyer, not to mention President Barack Obama, dismissively deflect any suggestion that particular members of Congress are violating their oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution. A handful of words that meant something entirely different to the authors of the Constitution — in fact, the exact opposite of Congressional renditions — is their sole sanction for expanding government powers. (And where is the Supreme Court on this issue? Absent from the bench, of course.)
Recounting this episode in crass contempt and learned ignorance is an overture to the subject of the mainstream critical establishment’s reception of the two biographies of Ayn Rand, Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Doubleday), and Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press). As most of our lawmakers consider raising the subject of the unlawfulness of their actions as beyond the bounds of polite or legitimate enquiry, the overwhelming consensus of contemporary critics is that Ayn Rand’s philosophy of reason and individual rights cannot — should not — be taken seriously and must be treated with similar contempt and ignorance. And, as with the libertarians (see my previous commentary), the mainstream press’s chief purpose in paying any attention to the Heller and Burns books is to attack Rand by cadging supporting statements from both biographies.
(I shall repeat here that I have not yet read the Heller and Burns biographies, but plan to. The subject here, again, is the reviewers, not the books or their authors.)
Late last year and early this year, when observers were reporting the uncanny similarities between current events and the events in Atlas Shrugged, there was nothing to do but report the phenomena. The parallels were undeniable and untouchable. But the appearance of these books now is propinquitous.
Her stalwart critics cannot refute her philosophy. The best of them, such as British philosopher Anthony Clifford Grayling (discussed below), can only dazzle the gullible with mental whirligigs. Some critics are so unread and illiterate that they can never grasp the philosophy, but only sense its danger to their intellectual and moral lethargy in an animalistic, feral manner. So they all adopt the policy of ad hominem, frequently interspersing their attacks on her person with generous ad captandum monologues. As I suggested in my previous commentary, imagine if it were reported that Aristotle beat his wife (as claimed, perhaps, by Roman biographer Suetonius in a newly discovered fragment), then that would constitute sufficient refutation of his work.
So it is with the mainstream media and literary treatment of Rand. In all instances, the fear, ignorance and malice in these reviews are palpable. For the present, their authors monopolize the podium of the culture.
TIME’s review of both biographies, “Ayn Rand: Extremist or Visionary?” (October 12) is perhaps the shortest. It does not so much review the books as borrow indiscriminately from them. After attempting to make Rand look comical in the first paragraph, the review goes on:
The bad economy has been good news for Rand’s legacy. Her fierce denunciations of government regulation have sent sales of her two best-known novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, soaring. Yet her me-first brand of capitalism has been excoriated for fomenting the recent financial crisis. And her most famous former acolyte–onetime Fed chairman Alan Greenspan–has been blamed for inflating the housing bubble by refusing to intervene in the market.
Does the author of the review attempt to rebut the charges that Rand’s philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism was responsible for the financial crisis, and suggest instead that government intervention was and remains the culprit? No. If she had, she would not have insinuated that Alan Greenspan still believed in free markets, and that blame for the crisis could be pinned on them. An ounce of acuity in the author about Greenspan’s position would have led her to suspect that the former Federal Reserve chairman had abandoned laissez-faire in favor of intervention.
The TIME review goes on:
In the midst of the newly rekindled debate, two excellent biographies have just been published: Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller…is a comprehensive study, in novelistic detail, of Rand’s personal life, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns…leans more heavily on Rand’s theories and politics.
TIME’s reviewer, however, does not dwell on the theories and politics, but rather on Rand herself, quoting more often from Burns’ book than from Heller’s. Among other inaccuracies, it asserts that Rand’s horrible experience in Soviet Russia was the genesis of her “hatred of communism and any sort of collectivism,” which hatred “would guide her life” and somehow lead to the formulation of a philosophy. If the review’s author had bothered to investigate further (and perhaps read the biographies a little more closely), she would have seen that Rand abhorred collectivism before the Bolshevik coup and the imposition of communist rule in Russia. The reviewer does not attempt to answer whether Rand was an “extremist” or a “visionary.” She simply concludes that Rand’s emotions trumped reason and that, consequently, she was a pathetic person.
Janet Maslin in her New York Times review, “Twin Biographies of a Singular Woman, Ayn Rand” (October 22), emulating TIME’s review, opens with the same ridiculing reference to Rand’s appearance, stressing her gold dollar-sign pin, calling it a “Halloween-ready costume.” That more or less sets the tone of Maslin’s review.
Repeating the error that Rand’s antipathy for any kind of collectivism was the foundation of what would become her philosophy of Objectivism, Maslin writes:
Ms. Heller’s book is worth its $35 price, which is not the kind of detail that Rand herself would have been shy about trumpeting. When Russian Bolshevik soldiers commandeered and closed the St. Petersburg pharmacy run by Zinovy Rosenbaum [Rand‘s father], they made a lifelong capitalist of his 12-year-old daughter, Alissa [Rand], who would wind up fusing the subversive power of the Russian political novel with glittering Hollywood-fueled visions of the American dream.
Maslin, like Andrea Sachs of TIME and other reviewers, fairly gloats over Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden, her “foremost acolyte and officially anointed intellectual heir,” and predictably attaches more importance to it than to the body of Rand’s work.
Both books characterize Rand’s long relationship with Branden as the most important connection in her life. And both use it to illustrate how drastically Rand’s personal ties could rupture. The amphetamine-addicted, self-styled goddess in both books becomes so moody and volatile that her associates do not simply part ways with her. Some, like Branden and his wife, Barbara, wind up excommunicated.
Maslin concludes that Rand had “an hypnotic effect on those in her orbit,” implying that her ideas and logic were of less importance than her need to have “acolytes” and her “acolytes” needing her brand of religion. Referring to Rand’s first days in Hollywood — a “fishy story” which Maslin writes was investigated by Heller — Maslin concludes that Rand’s chief asset was her “charisma”:
Rand might have expressed disdain for that charisma, but it was enough to stop [Cecil B.] DeMille in his tracks. She would have been nowhere without it.
Sam Anderson’s New York Magazine review, “Mrs. Logic” (October 18), is arguably worse than either Maslin’s or Sachs’. Anderson, who confesses that he was once a student of Objectivism, reviews only Heller’s book, and mooches from it with scanty attribution and imposes his own evaluation on the information he gleans from it, so that rarely can one distinguish between his and Heller‘s evaluations. Beginning his review with a snide narration of what people could expect upon first meeting Rand, he writes:
….[S]he would open the conversation with a line that seems destined to go down as one of history’s all-time classic icebreakers: “Tell me your premises.” Once you’d managed to mumble something halfhearted about loving your family, say, or the Golden Rule, Rand would set about systematically exposing all of your logical contradictions, then steer you toward her own inviolable set of premises: that man is a heroic being, achievement is the aim of life, existence exists, A is A, and so forth—the whole Objectivist catechism. And once you conceded any part of that basic platform, the game was pretty much over. She’d start piecing together her rationalist Tinkertoys until the mighty Randian edifice towered over you: a rigidly logical Art Deco skyscraper, 30 or 40 feet tall, with little plastic industrialists peeking out the windows—a shining monument to the glories of individualism, the virtues of selfishness, and the deep morality of laissez-faire capitalism. Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.
Among Anderson’s numerous egregious and vicious statements about Rand, two stand out:
It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument.
Thus the subtitle of Anderson’s review: “Ayn Rand never got into an argument she couldn’t win. Except, perhaps, with herself.” Harping again on the allegedly subjective, virtually neurotic origins and nature of Objectivism, he notes:
Anne Heller’s new biography…allows us to poke our heads, for the first time, into the Russian-American’s overheated philosophical subbasement. After reading the details of Rand’s early life, I find it hard to think of Objectivism as very objective at all—it looks more like a rational program retrofitted to a lifelong temperament, a fantasy world created to cancel the nightmare of a terrifying childhood….No one, according to Heller’s portrait, struggled with the unreality of Objectivism more than Rand herself. She wept, throughout her life, at the world’s refusal to conform to her ideal vision of it. Although she claimed that “one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner,” she repeatedly withheld or distorted facts to feed her own mythology.
This is the theme of Anderson’s whole review: Ayn Rand created her own “mythology”; ergo, she was as phony as her philosophy. He can’t take her seriously, nor should anyone else.
An unsigned review of the Heller and Burns biographies in The Economist, “Capitalism’s martyred hero” (October 22), repeats but does not dwell on the “mythology” theme:
But her most important attribute was her talent for myth-making. Rand perfected her literary art as a screenwriter in Hollywood. And she dealt in Hollywood-style dichotomies between good and evil, between white-hatted capitalists and black-hatted collectivists. Greys don’t interest me, she once said. “Atlas Shrugged” conjured up a world in which all creative businessmen had gone on strike, retreating to Galt’s Gulch in Colorado, and culminated in a dramatic court scene in which Galt detailed the evils of collectivism.
The reviewer obviously had not read Atlas Shrugged to the end; John Galt does not appear in any courtroom scene. (Perhaps the reviewer had read The Fountainhead, but Galt and Howard Roark are emphatically not the same.) The swipes taken against Rand in this review are less offensive than those in the Anderson and Maslin reviews. The Economist reviewer at least concedes that Atlas Shrugged especially has permanent relevance and that Rand was right.
Jennifer Burns is better versed in conservative thought. Both are well worth reading, partly because Rand’s life was so extraordinary and partly because the questions that she raised about the proper power of government are just as urgent now as they ever were….Rand was the single most uncompromising critic of the collectivist tide that swept across the capitalist world in the wake of the Depression. For her, government was nothing more than licensed robbery and altruism just an excuse for power-grabbing. Intellectuals and bureaucrats might pose as champions of the people against the powerful. But in reality they were empire builders who were motivated by a noxious mixture of envy and greed.
The review concludes:
Yet Rand’s appeal has been undimmed by either the vituperation of her critics or the peculiarity of her admirers. Her insight in “Atlas Shrugged”—that society cannot thrive unless it is willing to give freedom to its entrepreneurs and innovators—has proved to be prescient.
Nick Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of Reason magazine and now editor of Reason.com and Reason.tv, in his Fall Wilson Quarterly review, “Ready for Her Close-Up,” asks:
Has any major postwar American author taken as much critical abuse as Ayn Rand? Her best-known novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have sold more than 12 million copies in the United States alone and were ranked first and second in a 1998 Modern Library reader survey of the “greatest books” of the 20th century. Yet over the years, Rand’s writing has been routinely dismissed as juvenile and subliterate when it has been considered at all.
Later on, Gillespie notes:
Despite—or perhaps because of—such persistent mass appeal, critics have never been kind to Rand.
Contempt has long been the standard literati response to Rand. Like Jack Kerouac, Rand is typically written off as a writer whose basic appeal is to maladjusted adolescents, a sort of vaguely embarrassing starter author who is quickly outgrown by those of us who develop more sophisticated aesthetic and ideological tastes. There’s more than a small degree of truth to such a characterization, but the extreme prejudice with which Rand is dismissed belies a body of work that continues to reach new audiences.
Of all the reviews discussed here, Gillespie’s is the fairest, not only to Rand, but to the Burns and Heller biographies. But the writer still feels compelled to take swings at Rand’s persona; it is the fairest review in terms of there being in it the least number of sneers and snorts directed at Rand. It is almost as though Gillespie were under some editorial obligation to include them (otherwise the review might not have passed muster in the Quarterly). He quotes Burns early in the article:
That Rand’s life story is in many ways more melodramatic, unbelievable, and conflicted than one of her own plots certainly helps to keep the reader’s attention. As Burns puts it, “The clash between her romantic and rational sides makes [her life] not a tale of triumph, but a tragedy of sorts.”
And, remarking on both biographies, ends it with:
Together, they provide a rounded portrait of a woman who, as Burns writes, “tried to nurture herself exclusively on ideas.” As Rand’s biography underscores, she failed miserably in that, even as she helped create an ideological framework that continues to energize debate in contemporary America.
By far the longest and most irrelevant review of the Heller and Burns biographies appeared September 14 in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait’s “Wealthcare.” It is a lengthy, bilious protest against the recent revolt of the “right” against an economically and politically carnivorous White House and Congress, a revolt which Chait blames almost exclusively on Rand. At the same time, it is the most honest of all the reviews, for Chait doesn’t hide behind cowardly chortles and guffaws to argue his position. However, lumping her together with conservative politicians, betrayed Obama supporters, and Tea Partiers, Chait writes of the uprising:
There is another way to describe this conservative idea. It is the ideology of Ayn Rand. Some, though not all, of the conservatives protesting against redistribution and conferring the highest moral prestige upon material success explicitly identify themselves as acolytes of Rand.
A few more clicks to the left and The New Republic’s masthead could very well read The Daily Worker. Chait, a senior editor of the publication, has apparently read Rand’s novels — perhaps even some of her non-fiction essays on politics — for he contrasts free market economics with socialist economics, and almost gets John Galt’s speech right. He handily explicates Rand’s ethics of productive work. For example:
It was Atlas Shrugged that Rand deemed the apogee of her life’s work and the definitive statement of her philosophy. She believed that the principle of trade governed all human relationships–that in a free market one earned money only by creating value for others. Hence, one’s value to society could be measured by his income. History largely consisted of “looters and moochers” stealing from society’s productive elements.
Chait quotes from Galt’s speech about the pyramid of ability — not a pyramid of intellect, as Chait implies, for ability presupposes a mind or an intellect, while ability or competence or productive work is the observable, measurable consequence of such a mind in action, and can be measured as a value — and calls it an “inverted Marxism.” And even though Chait demonstrates a more than superficial understanding of Rand’s ethics — certainly more than any of the other reviewers discussed in this commentary — he still sides with collectivism. Earlier in his review he remarked about the revolt against Obama and his socialist agenda, before discussing Rand‘s role in it:
In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms–that taking from the rich harms the economy–but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways.
Chait’s epistemological errors include thinking that “society” is an actual, independent, volitional entity, and that the term “rich” does not include the middle class, that part of “society” which also performs productive work. This is to be expected of a committed collectivist such as Chait, and when he coheres to Marxist criticism, his arguments begin to disintegrate. To wit:
Rand’s political philosophy remained amorphous in her early years. Aside from a revulsion at communism [sic], her primary influence was Nietzsche, whose exaltation of the superior individual spoke to her personally….In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite….Rand’s hotly pro-capitalist novels oddly mirrored the Socialist Realist style, with two-dimensional characters serving as ideological props….Like her old idol Nietzsche, she denounced a transvaluation of values according to which the strong had been made weak and the weak were praised as the strong….Rand called her doctrine “Objectivism,” and it eventually expanded well beyond politics and economics to psychology, culture, science (she considered the entire field of physics “corrupt”), and sundry other fields. Objectivism was premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavors. Emotion and taste had no place….Ultimately the Objectivist movement failed for the same reason that communism failed: it tried to make its people live by the dictates of a totalizing ideology that failed to honor the realities of human existence. Rand’s movement devolved into a corrupt and cruel parody of itself.
Ultimately, Chait, while he accuses Rand (perhaps influenced by the Heller and Burns biographies) of shutting out the world in order to sustain her “world view,” is himself ideologically insulated against the observable phenomenon that Objectivism is “on a roll,” that it has hardly failed. The balance of his review is largely a disjointed and distracting critique of conservative/Republican economic policies and an endorsement of Obama’s, only tenuously connected to the biographies.
Lastly, A.C. Grayling, a British professor of philosophy at Birbeck College, University of London, and a frequent book reviewer for, all of things, Barnes & Noble, of all the reviewers discussed her, fails the most miserably when confronted with the task of reviewing the Burns and Heller biographies of Ayn Rand, but chiefly in his misapprehension of Rand’s philosophy. That misapprehension is rooted in a natural hostility to objectivity and logic, and may be taken as evidence of the state of contemporary, “mainstream” philosophy.
It is noteworthy that Grayling tackles only Heller’s biography, not Jennifer Burns’, for the latter apparently delves in more detail into the development of Rand’s philosophy and thinking than does Heller‘s. Other than a pair of irrelevant remarks about Rand by the late leftist/neo-conservative philosopher Sidney Hook, Grayling shies away from any philosophical rebuttal. He lets Hook do his talking.
Grayling’ review is particularly insipid, for it falls back on pleas for altruism to combat the purported heartlessness of Rand and her philosophy.
As the Branden affair shows, Rand’s life was indeed exemplary of her thought. It was, in line with her avowed principles, an entirely selfish life, to which she sacrificed her family, her good-natured husband Frank O’Connor, her friends, and all but the last of her devoted followers, Leonard Peikoff. Whoever was not wholly with her was against her.
Au contraire, Rand did value her family, still prisoners in Soviet Russia, and was faced with the conflict of maintaining contact with them at the risk of jeopardizing their lives. She loved her husband, and as Letters of Ayn Rand amply reveals, concerned herself with the well-being of friends and relatives (on her husband’s side, her own distant relatives in Russia being beyond help). She could be generous, but not to a fault.
As for her philosophy, all Grayling can ascribe to it is cruelty and brutality.
What is wrong with Rand’s views is what is wrong with Gordon Gekko. The unregulated market coupled with unbridled individual self-interest adds up to something far from heroic in the would-be Roark/Galt mode; instead it adds up to the strong trampling the weak, to the callousness of the jungle — and eventually to a mightily ironic paradox, which is that the weak have to rescue the strong because the latter’s unrestricted rampaging has consumed their own hunting-grounds.
Whatever that might mean. Again, Grayling writes, willing to forgive Rand but for her philosophy of egoism (which he never names):
She had enormous talents, great charisma, courage and dedication — all as apparent in her work as in her life, and all acknowledged by Heller — and not all of her ideas were wrong: her secularism merits applause, as does her opposition to the use of force in world affairs, and as does her championing of liberty — or rather, this latter might merit applause if it were not in fact a coarse and callous libertarianism merely, which means liberty only for the few strong enough to trample on the heads of the rest.
And that represents Grayling’s summary view of the philosophical significance of Rand’s thinking, the hoary old collectivist chestnut, preached for decades from pulpits and in grade school “social studies” and in university classrooms, that unregulated freedom can only mean the oppression of the poor and “disadvantaged” and the average. No one but the “rich” and the “strong” could possibly profit from freedom — a rather stultified and not very original position for a prominent philosopher to take.
Critics serve the function of cultural scouts, pointing out to the public what is significant, what is worth one’s attention, and what may be of value — and also what is significantly not a value. Ayn Rand and her oeuvre are major contributors to Western culture, certainly the most significant in the last two hundred years, yet our culture has descended to such a state that its scouts are desperately and maliciously trying to persuade people that neither she nor her work should be taken seriously, for if they did, it would mean the end of the critics’ own importance.
Fortunately, few are heeding the advice of the critics, and countless individuals are discovering that there is an oasis over the horizon, and there, in Rand and her works, can be found life as it was meant and ought to be.