Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Atlas shrugs; Chris yawns

One of the interesting and irritating things I’ve seen as a northern spectator on American politics since Obama’s election is the re-injection of Ayn Rand into conservative discourse. Rand’s militantly individualist philosophy of objectivism has animated many of the arguments against the stimulus (significantly, the Obama version far more that Bush’s), and when the teabaggers have managed to complete full sentences, there has frequently been a Randian flavour to their protests. And now the prospect of “socialized” health care has resurrected the ghost of John Galt to argue against any legislation that aids the heavier and undeserving segments of society’s pyramids.

Jonathan Chait has an excellent article in The New Republic discussing two new biographies of Rand. He offers some excellent analyses of Rand’s particular brand of philosophy, but also puts his finger on what is the biggest flaw in her celebration of individual accomplishment and excellence: namely, that income is the purest denominator of success, and that “elite” in the Rand vocabulary is invariably synonymous with “business elite.” It is as if, quips Matthew Yglesias, “an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of [the] ubermenschen.”

I had not, I must admit, read much Rand until recently. During my undergrad I read one of her lesser novels (Anthem) and imbibed enough of her philosophy to be entirely turned off; during the writing of my dissertation I had the entertaining experience of reading her Screen Guide for Americans, a guidebook she wrote for the Motion Picture Alliance that offered advice on how to detect, identify, and avoid communist influence in films (truly, a page turner, especially if you don’t quite understand how Frank Capra and Henry Fonda were raging Reds). I have lately been working (slogging) my way through Atlas Shrugged at the behest of a student who, as a Rand enthusiast, quite rightly suggested that if I wanted to mock Rand I should put my money where my mouth is and read what is considered her masterpiece.

So far? Unimpressed. I can see where the narrative is going, and while the celebration of personal accomplishment is always commendable, Rand’s philosophy is relentlessly bloodless and isolating. Putting aside for the moment the fallacy of making an absolute connection between income and excellence, Rand’s particular brand of individualism is so relentlessly militant it is anathema to any form or incarnation of community. Anything that impinges upon individual accomplishment—any obligation that individual has to other people, ethically or otherwise—Rand rejects as the leading edge of collective mediocrity eroding the heroic individual.

I suppose it’s because my own conception of “great accomplishment” tends to lean more toward the civic or political, or triumphs of the imagination creative or empirical—in general, accomplishment that presupposes the value of community and social contract, and the need to contribute to it—that makes Rand’s John Galts and Howard Roarks compelling but ultimately hollow for me. Shakespeare wasn’t a millionaire and Mozart died a pauper, after all, and as far as "accomplishment" goes, I'd put them ahead of Nelson Rockerfeller any day.

No comments: