Near the end of her September 1960 article in Human Events, “J.F.K. — High Class Beatnik?” about the keynote speech presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy delivered at the Democratic National Convention, Ayn Rand warns:
When a man extols “leadership”—leadership without direction—leadership without any stated purpose, program or ideal—leadership for the sake of leadership—you may be sure that you are hearing the voice of a man motivated by power-lust. It is specifically the power-lust of the Fascist variety, because the Communists promised their victims an alleged social ideal, while the Fascists offer nothing but loose talk about some unspecified form of racial or national “greatness.”
Rand dissects the meaning of Kennedy’s non-promises to lead the country “somewhere,” but leaves the question unanswered, because Kennedy had not yet won the election and begun to implement his economic and political policies. Once he was in office, she later concluded that he was indeed a fascist in her seminal article, “The Fascist New Frontier,” which her publisher, Random House’s Bennett Cerf, refused to carry in a volume of her essays.
In 1962 the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand delivered a talk entitled “The Fascist New Frontier” (reprinted in the recent collection “The Ayn Rand Column”), an analysis of President Kennedy’s New Frontier social and economic programs. When she offered a written version of the talk as part of a projected volume of essays, her publisher, Bennett Cerf, “absolutely hit the roof.” As he related in his memoir, “At Random,” “I called her and said we were not going to publish any book that claimed Hitler and Jack Kennedy were alike.” Rand refused to back down, and soon thereafter ended her association with Random House.
Barack Obama, however, all throughout his campaign for the presidency, uttered progressive promises and has attempted to keep them. His masked, crudely nuanced rhetoric, once it was deciphered by anyone who wished to know what he was actually saying, is textbook socialist rhetoric. In possibly only one instance did he give the game away, when in 2008 he assured Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher that he didn‘t want to tax Joe but it might be necessary.
“My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re gonna be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
As the news media and sympathizers like Bennett Cerf were awed by Kennedy’s rhetoric and non-promises, today sympathetic pundits and newscasters see the words and refuse to concede that socialism is precisely what Obama had promised. The news media largely explained away the “spread the wealth” statement in such a manner that one could have fallen asleep reading the interpretations.
Obama’s folksy style of delivery, with or without a teleprompter, is far removed from JFK’s “high class” delivery of the same sentiments. JFK was anti-communist because he apparently did not agree with communism’s version of sacrifice, leadership, and national “greatness.” He had one wholly his own (which Rand ultimately described in the essay rejected by Random House). And, only when he was in office, like JFK, did Obama lay his cards on the table and fan them out for all to see.
The New York Times ran an article on February 8th, “For Obama, Nuance on Race Invites Questions.” Here is reported the disappointment of the Congressional Black Caucus and prominent black spokesmen with Obama’s alleged failure to pass special legislation aimed at alleviating suffering among the country’s black population.
On Capitol Hill, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed irritation that Mr. Obama has not created programs tailored specifically to African-Americans, who are suffering disproportionately in the recession. In December, some of them threatened to oppose new financial rules for banks until the White House promised to address the needs of minorities.
The Times article — without bothering to enquire on how or why blacks are “suffering disproportionately” — quotes prominent blacks pro and con on whether Obama should focus on black issues and push for legislation that favors blacks or push for legislation that would affect “all people.” This is not the issue here. The issue is Obama himself. Dorothy Height, the 97-year-old chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, having counseled “every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt on matters of race, made a plea in a recent interview for Mr. Obama to be left alone.”
We have never sat down and said to the 43 other presidents: ‘How does it feel to be a Caucasian? How do you feel as a white president? Tell me what that means to you,’ ” Dr. Height said. “I am not one to think that he should do more for his people than for other people. I want him to be free to be himself.”
“His people” and “other people“? These references bespeak a career of thinking in terms of race, of contentious tribes. So Dr. Height was unable to ask the more significant question: Does Obama even have a self to “be himself”? A self, after all, is something one creates independently of what others think, say, or do, irrespective of the culture, of one’s race or gender, of one‘s ancestors, of one‘s immediate family. It is a measure of independent thought, a consequence of one’s own value-judgments. To judge by his two books, Obama has been other-oriented all his life. Such a person has no “self-esteem” because there is very little self to begin with. His “self-esteem” is overwhelmingly dependent on what others think of him, and can’t correctly be called “self-esteem” at all. To claim that Obama has “high” or “low” self-esteem would be as much an error as calling a Jackson Pollack canvas a “work of art.”
Yet, some critics, supporters and opponents alike, accuse Obama of being narcissistic. There is a certain narcissism apparent in the character of his public appearances and utterances.
But is he guilty of being a narcissist? He is certainly not an egoist. In every one of his public statements, expressions of self-interest and the morality of self-interest are conspicuously absent. Obama’s chief sales pitch has been from the beginning his selflessness, echoing JFK’s imperative of asking of what he can do for his country, and not what his country can do for him. Well, the country elected him, and now the peril of his selflessness can be measured by what he is doing to the country, not for it.
One of the best Socratic expositions on selflessness is to be found in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in the discussion between Howard Roark and Gail Wynand on Wynand’s yacht about the essences of selfishness and selflessness.*
Roark tells Wynand that men who seek the approval of others, do so
“At the price of their own self-respect. In the realm of greatest importance — the realm of values, of judgment, of spirit, of thought — they place others above self, in the exact manner which altruism demands. A truly selfish man cannot be affected by the approval of others. He doesn’t need it.”
Second-handers, Roark tells Wynand,
“have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: “Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’….You don’t think through another’s brain and you don’t work through another’s hands. When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness…Second-handers have no sense of reality.”
Earlier in their exchange, leading up to the role of altruism in selflessness and collectivism, Wynand observes,
“[Ellsworth] Toohey would tell me that this is not what he means by altruism. He means I shouldn’t leave it up to the people to decide what they want. I should decide it. I should determine, not what I like nor what they like, but what I think they should like, and then ram it down their throats. It would have to be rammed, since their voluntary choice is the Banner. Well, there are several such altruists in the world today.”
This is one of the few indirect references to the dictators and political power-lusters of The Fountainhead’s time, ranging from FDR to Hitler and Mussolini.
Roark and Wynand discuss the fate of Peter Keating as an instance of “actual selflessness.“ Keating is one of two of Rand’s principal selfless men. The other is Ellsworth Toohey, one of newspaperman Wynand’s star critics and inveterate schemer after power over men, one of them being the willing pawn, Keating. When Roark says that actual selflessness is what is destroying the world, Wynand asks:
“The ideal they say does not exist”
“They’re wrong. It does exist — though not in the way they imagine…Look at Peter Keating.”
“You look at him. I hate his guts.”
“I’ve looked at him — at what’s left of him — and it’s helped me to understand. He’s paying the price and wondering for what sin and telling himself that he’s been too selfish. In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self?”
Peter Keating was without question not a narcissist. A narcissist at least has a self.
What is it to be narcissistic? More than being a species of vanity — which itself must be distinguished from legitimate pride and self-respect — narcissism at least presumes that one is aware of one’s identity. It is seeing some value in an actual, real aspect of oneself — a demonstrable skill or ability, physical beauty, and the like. It must be real but is the object of exaggerated absorption by oneself, exaggerated in that it becomes an irrational obsession to the exclusion of all other concerns. Pride can be a virtue, but narcissism is an irrational fascination. It could be called a neurosis. It could also be partly “other-oriented.”
Obama is simply a more successful Peter Keating, one of the “secondhand lives“ in The Fountainhead. Whereas Keating’s mother pushed her son into a more “prestigious” and possibly more lucrative career (architecture), Obama’s mother was a communist ideologue who raised her son to be one, as well, and his having communist mentors as tutors simply ensured that he would have no personal values (other than conventional ones, such as basketball; it may be significant to note that, since assuming office, he has taken up the relatively solitary game of golf). As Keating was guilty of not pursuing his own values (painting, Catherine Halsey), and reaped the consequences, Obama might have had his own values, but never pursued them, never said “no” to his mother.
To judge by his rise from “community organizer” (a low-echelon collectivist) to state senator to U.S. senator to the presidency, Obama can’t be “himself” unless he is in the spotlight of approval by others. One could say this about JFK, as well, and to a lesser extent about several of his predecessors. Obama has surrounded himself with advisors who reflect in varying degrees his absence of personal values, his absence of a self. Since it is the natural attribute of men to achieve some sort of efficacy — or proof of it — Obama seeks it in how much power he can impose over those in his immediate coterie and over the entire country — to ram government health care and stimulus packages and cap-and-trade down the throats of the public.
His cabinet and advisors are of the same aspic-like material; they have senses of “self” and power because they are “valued” by someone who has even less “self” than they. Obama himself derives “esteem” from power and the envy of those who do not possess it, but, as Gail Wynand (and Peter Keating) learned in the end, there is no “self” there to appreciate it. Success in legislation (what little there has been of it) brings Obama a transient “glow” of efficacy, then it dies, like a cheap, spent light bulb, and he renews the search for it.
The hallmark of a tyrant or dictator is selflessness, requiring an endless quest to keep reality and perceived enemies at bay, which requires accumulating power over reality — by creating nothing, but becoming a parasite of other men’s achievements — by way of power over others — they somehow know the secret of life, and their approval and obedience are necessary to the selfless man‘s survival and sense of security.
Obama the narcissist is illusory. A narcissist can at least see himself in a mirror. Obama sees in a mirror only what other people see. He cannot be “free to be himself,” because he not only has no respect or “concern for facts, ideas, or work,” but he can have no self-respect. The self he may imagine is his own exists solely in the minds of others – the minds of his staff, of his supporters, of the press, who assure him that he is a great man striving to make real great things. He struggles to fill the role. But the “great things” he wishes to accomplish cannot be realized without resorting to coercion and extortion.
His other-oriented self “glows” in the presence of others, but begins to fade the moment he is left alone to “be himself.” Then all he can experience is what is left of himself, the restless, thrashing residue of what self may have once existed before he surrendered it. The self the public sees, however, is but a cloud of swirling gnats that hovers in no particular place.
Obama is one of many “such altruists” in the world today. To call him a narcissist is to pay him a compliment, almost as contradictory a one as calling him the “leader of the free world.”
*The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. 1943. New York: Plume-Penguin Centennial Edition, 2005, pp. 633-636. The dialogue can be found in Chapter XI, Part IV, Howard Roark.