Ayn Rand’s Novels for Colorado Teachers

I am independently promoting funding for the Ayn Rand Institute’s “Books for Teachers” program for Colorado.

If you are a teacher, I encourage you to check out the program.

If you are interested in Rand’s works, I encourage you to donate funds to ARI specially marked to support Colorado’s “Books for Teachers” program.

If you donate to ARI for this purpose, please let me know as well. The total target for the campaign is $19,000. Coloradans have already contributed $1,100 to the campaign, and an anonymous donor has pledged $5,000 in matching funds for new donations. Please let me know whether you want me to use your name or remain anonymous. I’ll keep a running tally going below. Note that you can DOUBLE your donations with the matching funds.

Previous donations: $1,100 (includes $500 from Mike and Jennifer Rivers)
Matching funds from an anonymous donor: $5,000
“Galt’s Gulch” auction leader: David Weatherell for $3,100

The following contributions all qualify for matching funds:
Ari and Jennifer: $80
Doug and Hannah Krening: $500
Martin L. Buchanan: $100
Mike Williams and Cara: $35
Brian S.: $35
Howard and Susan: $160
Betty Evans: $500
Donovan Schafer: $320
Linn and Sharon Armstrong: $50
David Weatherell: $900
CG: $50
Patricia Tolleson: $100
Anonymous: $500
Mike Spalding: $20
Bill Faulkner: $400
JL: $2,000 (fulfills matching funds)

Richard Watts: $1,000
JV: $200
GF: $500
BM: $35
The Kempes: $160
KM: $25

TOTAL RAISED: $16,870

Reviewing Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’

Recently a local reading group I attend reviewed Ayn Rand’s dystopian novelette Anthem. That book served as my introduction to Rand many years ago, and rereading it proved rewarding.

In our discussion, we explored a variety of topics:

* The romance between the two lead characters, Equality and Liberty, develops as Equality becomes an independent thinker and scientist. This anticipates Howard Roark’s comment in Fountainhead, “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.”

* The way Equality values his scientific work anticipates the relationship between the heroes and their work in Atlas Shrugged. It illustrates Rand’s view that material objects are not valuable in themselves, but only in relation to individual values and consciousness.

* For Rand, totalitarianism necessarily results, ultimately, in total economic collapse. The central reason for this is that political controls prevent individuals from acting on their own reasoned judgment, ultimately chilling reasoned thought as such. In the long run capitalism and technological progress cannot survive totalitarian controls. Contrast the primitive society of Anthem with the (in some ways) highly technical societies of other dystopias, such as Brave New World and, more recently,Hunger Games.

Now that I’ve reread Anthem, I very much look forward to reading Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem, edited by Robert Mayhew. I’ve read the similar compilation about Atlas Shrugged, and it is excellent.

Incidentally, I was thrilled to watch the documentary Rush: 2112 & Moving Pictures (Classic Album) and find an excellent overview of Anthemby John Ridpath. (Anthem helped inspire the story for 2112.)

Below are the review questions used for our group (and others are free to reproduce these for purposes of discussion).

1. What is the ego? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction)

2. How do the conditions surrounding the writing and publication of Anthem relate to the book’s theme? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction, Rand’s 1946 foreword)

3. What are the principles and laws of the story’s society, and what are the emotional consequences of Equality 7-2521 breaking them? (Chapter I)

4. What is the connection between the collectivism and the technological regression of the story? (Chapter I)

5. Why does Rand place the budding romance between the discovery of the tunnel and the Unspeakable Word? (Chapter II)

6. What is the relationship between the advancing scientific discoveries and the building romance? (Chapter III, Chapter IV)

7. Why does Equality say “our new power defies all laws?” Is he right? (Chapter IV)

8. Why does Equality think “this wire is as a part of our body?” (Chapter V)

9. Why does Equality believe the Council of Scholars will accept his gift? Why is he wrong? (Chapter V, Chapter VII)

10. What is the significance of the observation that the electric light “would bring ruin to the Department of Candles?” (Chapter VII)

11. How does Equality’s self-discovery connect to his love of the Golden One? (Chapter VIII, Chapter IX)

12. How does Equality’s independence mesh with the Golden One’s deference toward him? (Chapter X)

13. What is the “world ready to be born?” (Chapter X)

14. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I am the warrant and the sanction?” (Chapter XI)

15. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others?” (Chapter XI)

16. How does Prometheus retain his independence while learning so much from others? (Chapter XII)

17. How can one man stoke “the spirit of man?” (Chapter XII)

Ayn Rand As Atheist: Skepticamp Talk

I delivered a twenty-minute talk August 27 at Skepticamp in Colorado Springs titled, “Ayn Rand As Atheist.” I open with the American Values Network attack on Ayn Rand for her atheism, then I describe what her atheism actually entails.

Somebody pointed out that I may not set up an early quote about duty well enough; it comes from Rand’s Red Pawn (in Early Ayn Rand) and it comes from a character whose views Rand criticizes as typically Communist.

September 12 Update: Following is a write-up based on the same material.

That the left attacks Ayn Rand for her capitalist politics comes as no surprise. Today’s left, though, attacks Rand not only for her political conclusions, but specifically for her atheism. Decades ago, usually only the religious right employed that line of attack (and did so with a vengeance). Today’s left, far from consistently defending secular values and the separation of church and state, increasingly joins the religious right in bringing religion into politics.

Rand, on the other hand, consistently defended the separation of church and state. While she eloquently defended freedom of religion and freedom of conscience more broadly, she rejected religion throughout her career and defended reason based on the evidence of the natural world and objective values based on the life and happiness of the individual.

The leftist organization American Values Network prominently attacks Rand’s atheism in a web page and related video, touting residual media ranging from Time to USA Today to Fox News. The organization argues:

GOP leaders and conservative pundits have brought upon themselves a crisis of values. Many who for years have been the loudest voices invoking the language of faith and moral values are now praising the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand whose teachings stand in direct contradiction to the Bible. Rand advocates a law of selfishness over love and commands her followers to think only of themselves, not others. She said her followers had to choose between Jesus and her teachings.

GOP leaders want to argue that they are defending Christian principles. …As conservative evangelical icon Chuck Colson recently stated, Christians can not support Rand’s philosophy and Christ’s teachings. The choice is simple: Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ. We must choose one and forsake the other.

In fact American Values Network grossly distorts Rand’s views — she advocated appropriate loving relationships and thoughtfulness of others — but the organization’s deeper error lies in attacking Rand’s atheism while explicitly advocating a religious basis for politics (specifically a Christian basis rooted in Biblical texts). Note the enormous difference between logically or factually questioning Rand’s conclusions in politics and ethics (controversies beyond the scope of this article), and rejecting Rand’s ideas because she does not ground them in religion. The latter sort of attack should concern everyone who values the separation of church and state.

As a silver lining, the American Values Network campaign raises awareness of Rand’s criticisms of religion and faith-based politics, provoking thoughtful observers to discover the nature of Rand’s actual views. Thankfully, Rand eloquently explained and defended her views on religion. Considered on their merits, rather than filtered and stripped out of context by partisan character assassins, Rand’s positions constitute an important alternative to religion and a powerful defense of the separation of church and state. Those positions richly deserve a deeper look.

To set the context for Rand’s atheism, consider that she was born in pre-Soviet Russia in 1905 into a Jewish family. Thus, she never grew up with strong Christian (or even religiously Jewish) beliefs. (See Objectively Speaking, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, page 226.) Marxism dominated many intellectual circles in Russia, with its emphasis on collectivism and antagonism toward religion. Rand moved to the United States in 1926 where, understandably, her antipathy toward Communism dominated much of her early thinking. Not until many decades later, in the mid-1970s as Rand approached the end of her life, did the religious right make serious attempts to ground politics on religious beliefs.

Yet, as Rand developed her philosophy over time and emphasized different aspects of it as the culture around her changed, she constantly advocated the same worldview of using reason to achieve life-based values in the natural world. This was true of her first professional writing in 1932 until her final public appearances in the early 1980s. By any sensible measure, Rand must be counted among the greatest atheist intellectuals of the 20th Century.

Many of the basic elements of Rand’s atheism appear in the first writing she sold, a 1932 screen treatment called Red Pawn. As the name suggests, the treatment largely deals with the evils of Soviet dictatorship, yet it also criticizes religion.

Rand criticizes the notion of duty that contradicts or stands beyond reason. The Communist character Commandant Karayev describes the duty-based view: “When it’s duty, you don’t ask why and to whom. You don’t ask any questions. When you come up against a thing about which you can’t ask any questions — then you know you’re facing your duty.” (The Early Ayn Rand, edited by Leonard Peikoff, page 120.) Rand rejected any attempt to act outside of reason, whether from a religious or collectivist motivation.

Rand’s description of Karayev reveals much about her views of religion as well as Communism:

He stood at the door. At one side of him was a painting of a saint burning at the stake…renouncing the pleasures and tortures of the flesh for the glory of his heaven; at the other side — a poster of a huge machine with little ant-sized men, sweating at its gigantic levers, and the inscription: “Our duty is our sacrifice to the red collective of the Communistic State!” (The Early Ayn Rand page 136.)

For Rand, Communism does not fundamentally stand opposed to religion; instead, the Communists substituted the authority of the state (with its Commisars) for the authority of a religion (with its priests and sacred texts). While the religious authorities demand individual sacrifices for God or his works, the collectivist authorities demand sacrifices for the state or some collective end. As Leonard Peikoff summarizes in his introduction to the work, “Ayn Rand saw clearly that Communism, contrary to its propaganda, is not the alternative to religion, but only a secularized version of it, with the state assuming the prerogatives once reserved to the supernatural” (The Early Ayn Rand page 108).

For Rand, then, atheism is not enough. Atheism merely states a negative, an absence or rejection of theism and its supernatural realm. People can reject God and yet advocate irrational and even evil ideas. What matters is one’s positive philosophy, and Rand’s philosophy of reason grounded in natural evidence and earthly values consequently precludes theism. While American Christians reacted strongly against the atheism of Communism, particularly during the Cold War, Rand saw the similarities between the two camps as more substantial than the differences.

Rand’s 1936 novel We the Living, again set in Soviet Russia, addresses (at its periphery) the ethics and psychology of religion. Consider a telling exchange between two of the characters, Kira and Andrei:

“Do you believe in God, Andrei?”

“No.”

“Neither do I. But that’s a favorite question of mine. An upside-down question, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if I asked people whether they believed in life, they’d never understand what I meant. It’s a bad question. It can mean so much that it really means nothing. So I ask them if they believe in God. And if they say they do — then, I know they don’t believe in life.”

“Why?”

“Because, you see, God — whatever anyone chooses to call God — is one’s highest conception of the highest possible. And whoever places his highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life. It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.” (We the Living, by Ayn Rand, page 97-98 in the 1959 Random House edition.)

Here Rand suggests that religion tends to stand in the way of worldly values by encouraging people to place their hopes of achieving values in some afterlife. One chooses this life and the values of this life, or one neglects or denigrates this life in favor of an imagined world beyond death. (That many people in fact act on contradictory ideas and commitments would not surprise Rand.) Rand presents a highly idealistic vision of values in the sense that they are achievable in this life.

Religion drops even further to the background in Rand’s 1940 novel The Fountainhead, but that book too makes some criticisms of religion. Consider an exchange between the main character Howard Roark and his early mentor:

“Why did you decide to be an architect?”

“I didn’t know it then. But it’s because I’ve never believed in God.”

“Come on, talk sense.”

“Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them.” (The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, page 39 in the 1994 Plume edition.)

The dialogue again emphasizes Rand’s focus on this-worldly values, as opposed to the supernatural realm.

In his famous courtroom speech, Roark adds:

That man [the creator] the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures — because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer — because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. (The Fountainheadpage 710.)

Here Rand presents religion as backwards mysticism that stands in the way of this-wordly values.

Rand’s criticisms of religion become more pronounced and developed withAtlas Shrugged in 1957.

John Galt makes a number of pointed criticisms of religion (and collectivism) in his detailed radio address, including the following:

The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive — a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence. The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society — a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no physical form, a superbeing embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself. (Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, page 1027 in the 1992 Dutton edition.)

The mystics of both schools… are germs that attack you through a single sore: your fear of relying on your mind. They tell you that they possess a means of knowledge higher than the mind, a mode of consciousness superior to reason… (Atlas Shrugged page 1034.)

Here Rand emphasizes the irrationality of supernatural religious presumptions or their collectivist counterparts. Whereas, in Red Pawn, Rand revealed the psychology of turning to religion in rejection of worldly values, in Atlas Shrugged she sees as a source of mysticism the fear of relying on one’s reasoning mind as the sole means of knowledge.

Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned more to nonfiction writing and speaking, when she continued to attack the mysticism and self-sacrifice of religion and its subversion of reason in politics.

In 1960, Rand delivered an address at Yale titled, “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World.” In this talk, she again explicitly defends reason against the mysticism of religion: “Reason is the faculty which perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.Mysticism is the claim to a non-sensory means of knowledge.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand, page 63 in the 1984 Signet edition.) Moreover, Rand argues that rejecting reason in favor of religious faith in politics leads inexorably to conflict, violence, and rule by brute force:

[F]aith and force are corellaries, and… mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the onlyobjective means of communication and of understanding among men… But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding [is possible]. (Philosophy: Who Needs It page 70. Note that a typographical error appears in some printings of this book, corrected here with the bracketed text.)

In another talk later in 1960, Rand blasted conservatives for attempting to ground their politics in religious faith: “Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, page 197 of the 1967 Signet edition).

Rand’s warning about the inevitable strife of faith-based politics, and her resounding endorsement of the separation of church and state, should serve to jolt the rising Religious Left to its senses. Those who believe they can defeat Rand’s political positions using logic and reason are free to try it. But rejecting Rand’s ideas specifically because they are atheistic, and calling instead on a politics grounded on religious faith and sacred texts, invites long-term disaster in America, logically tending toward theocracy.

Over the course of her career, Rand fought for naturalism, a focus on this world, as opposed to supernaturalism. She advocated reason grounded in the evidence of the senses, not faith or mystical intuition. She advocated a morality based on the lives and well-being of real individuals, rather than some allegedly transcendent realm. She fought for a politics grounded in reason and individual rights. Rand presented these ideas in riveting novels that continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year to readers hungry for Rand’s idealized, value-based, story-driven “Romantic realism.” Through essays, lectures, and public appearances throughout the rest of her life, Rand continued to advocate her positive philosophy as well as the rightful separation of church and state.

Despite Rand’s decades of intellectual achievements, today more than any other literary figure she becomes the target of nasty and fact-challenged smears by both the left and the right. The left hates her for her capitalism, while the right hates her for her atheism — though the left increasingly joins the right in this, as the American Values Network illustrates.

Those who reject Rand’s moral and political theories would do well to take a second look at what she actually advocated and why, as her views suffer continual distortions in the popular media. Yet even those who disagree with Rand’s specific conclusions should recognize her achievements and her status as a preeminent 20th Century atheist intellectual and, more fundamentally, a champion of reason and liberty.

***

“Anonymous” left the following comment on September 11, 2011: Ari, not sure if this was the session where you talked about the left incorporating in more overt ways the religious (principally Christian) creed of self-sacrifice or not. But it got me thinking about an interview between the American play-write Arthur Miller and Jonathan Miller. In it, Arthur Miller touches on this idea, but levels an even greater warning: the combination of Christianity, Judaism, and nationalism – literally lethal in his view. It is a great interview, and is part of a collection of interviews with several atheists entitled The Atheism Tapes (BBC). Cheers! B Danielson

The Rise of Envy

Given the existence of “flash mob” riots, the continued rise of the massive welfare state (which threatens to push our nation off the economic cliff), and snarling calls to further loot “the rich,” I was enormously saddened to read Ayn Rand’s comment from her 1971 essay, “Don’t Let It Go:”

“Americans admire achievement; they know what it takes. Europeans regard achievement with cynical suspicion and envy. Envy is not a widespread emotion in America (not yet); it is an overwhelmingly dominant emotion in Europe.”

Rand, Aristotle, and the ‘Flayed Ox’

In reading Ayn Rand’s essay “The Goal of My Writing” for a reading group, I was struck by the following passage:

There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means — neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef. …

Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them — but are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake.(The Romantic Manifesto, pages 166-167)

This got me curious; if I’ve ever seen that work before, I didn’t remember it. Wikipedia features a vivid reproduction of the work.

My own reaction to the work is that it’s disturbing, a little gross and unsettling. And, oddly, it’s bathed in light. (It is a Rembrandt, after all.)

Interestingly, just a few paragraphs later Rand paraphrases Aristotle: “It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them ‘as they might be and ought to be.'”

But, in looking up the relevant passage in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” I found another quote equally relevant (see the fourth section, page 2318 of the second volume of the Revised Oxford.) The Philosopher writes:

It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood… And it is natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. That explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind…

To Aristotle, then, our appreciation of “still lifes” (or deaths) derives from our love of imitation and learning.

But that pertains only to “the general origin;” what about advanced art? A bit later (section nine, pages 2322-2323) Aristotle offers the discussion invoked by Rand:

From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of think that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. … Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do…

I think Aristotle must be right about imitative art; early cave art often features animals. And often budding artists develop their skills by painting scenes around them or even other great works of art. But I think there’s something more to a good still life beyond the artist showing his skill and the viewer reflecting on the imitation. Instead, a well-painted apple lets us think about apples in a new way. We see a “universal apple,” a presentation of how “such or such a kind of” apple “will probably or necessarily” appear. So good art seems to cross the barrier from sheer imitation to projection.

Does Rembrandt’s ox compel us to contemplate the misery of death? Even friendly critics seem to think so. I picked out a couple more or less at random:

Rembrandt van Rijn’s butchered “Carcass of Beef” (also known as the “Flayed Ox”), 37 x 27, hangs, skinned in a dark shed, dominating the center foreground of the painting. … Rembrandt has sumptuously developed the planes and forms of what, to most people of his day -– and ours –- would be merely a dead animal of utilitarian use, a source of physical nourishment… He sees in a dead beef — turns it into — a miracle of artistic beauty, and poetic and spiritual profundity. … Rembrandt has reached his highest artistic level in this work…

The artist paints this raw and drying thing with the reverence and respect with which he painted all things, including the crucifixion of Christ. [Compare.] For, this painting of a slaughtered ox or beef, hanging upside down in a darkened storeroom, can’t help but be likened to a crucifixion, with the spreading rear legs like arms affixed to a cross. …

He does not back away from death and the idea of dying. In a way, he embraces it here, as if a means of resolving its pain and fear. He has dealt with death in the loss of his first wife, Saskia, and at least two of his children.

And…

[T]he weakness of life and possible death at any moment are linked to the idea of vanitas [emptiness or death]. This stands for ephemerality, and reminded the Dutch people in the seventeenth century of their short and meaningless lives. The motive encourages a morally correct life and shows people that earthly delights are only short lived. The time in heaven after death is all that counts and life should be lived as a preparation for that time. Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox could be such a vanitas symbol. His painting can clearly be placed in the tradition of paintings with dead oxes and other animals. These carcasses are often combined with the homo bulla motive or other Christian encouragements to live your life like a respectable Christian.

While I think the comparison to the crucifixion is strained, surely there’s something to the idea that Rembrandt painted the carcass to contemplate death.

I think we can look at the ox at the imitative and the universal level. At one level, it is a viscerally stunning and richly textured work; though the object is “painful to see, we delight to view” its representation in art (at least in the sense of being fascinated by it). At another level, we think, “Every living thing dies, just like this ox.”

While the “vanitas” could be taken in the Christian sense to mean the frailty and angst of a short life, it can also be taken in a more positive, this-worldly sense. As a friend put it succinctly on Facebook, “Always live like you only live once.” I think it is worth contemplating death sometimes, for it reminds us to live well.

If an artist painted nothing but works like the flayed ox, that would indicate the problem Rand describes. But a single artwork can take a narrow slice of life, and one that need not be cheery and positive. I recognize the general problem Rand is discussing, but her example doesn’t seem to illustrate it well.

Smearing Ayn Rand (Again)

A couple months ago I wrote about how Ayn Rand—nearly three decades after her death—has become the target of almost daily smear jobs from both the left and the right, and even some “friendly” commentaries greatly distort her ideas.

That phenomenon is remarkable: I cannot name any other 20th Century public intellectual subject to comparable mistreatment. The smears raise an interesting question: what is it about Rand’s ideas that make her opponents afraid of people reading them?

Most of the smears against Rand are so silly and petty that they do not merit responses; anyway, one could spend one’s life rebutting them, hardly a productive venture. But the latest smear job, by Al Lewis, inexplicably appears on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, among the largest and most respected papers in the world. So perhaps a few words of reply are in order.

Lewis begins with a handful of true claims. Rand opposed libertarianism, and she was right to do so. Rand also criticized Ronald Reagan, who presided over deficit spending, a Social Security tax increase, and higher trade barriers. Perhaps more significantly, he helped set the framework for the growth of the religious right. If Reagan looks rosy to many modern eyes, we need merely recap the names of the full-termers who preceded and followed him: Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama.

Lewis is also quite correct that Rand “was an atheist, an abortion supporter and a champion of the anti-Christian ideal that selfishness is a virtue.” And she “villifies communism [and] socialism,” as does any sensible person. But that marks the end of Lewis’s truthful summary.

It is not true that Rand villified unionism per se, as Lewis claims; she opposed “compulsory unionism,” just as she opposed compulsory corporatism and compulsion in general.

Lewis then writes, “Some of her ideas are central to the American Dream. But Ms. Rand did much of her writing while hopped up on amphetamines and nicotine. And like most people who abuse this combination, she went too far. She crafted philosophical arguments and wrote bizarre works of fiction to prove their premises.”

Let me begin with the smear about the quality of Rand’s fiction. Very often, a commentator’s hysteria against Rand the novelist roughly matches his ignorance of her works. What Lewis (without argument) regards as “bizarre,” I regard as unique and genius. As far as I know, no other novel ever published has exploded in sales a half century after its original publication. While often the popular strays from the good, there is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers. While many of Rand’s critics wish to scare away potential readers of her novels by senselessly mocking the works, any honest individual will ignore all that and decide for himself.

Lewis’s claim that Rand’s ideas are wrong merely because she smoked and took amphetamines constitutes sheer anti-intellectualism. Even if Lewis’s claim were true — and it is not — still the ideas would have to be addressed on their own terms, apart from the personality of Ayn Rand.

It is true that Rand smoked and took amphetamines. But let us remember we’re talking about the 20th Century! Rand lived through the era when cigarette companies ran advertisements proclaiming the health benefits of their products. And Jacob Sullum reviews in Saying Yes (page 208): “For decades methamphetamine… was widely used in oral form, along with amphetamine… and dextroamphetamine… These drugs were given to soldiers during World War II, taken by students cramming for exams and truck drivers trying to stay awake on long hauls, and prescribed by doctors for weight loss, narcolepsy, depression, and hyperactivity. Until 1954, amphetamines were available in the United States without a prescription.”

Did Rand develop her ideas while she using drugs? No. Jennifer Burns (herself hardly consistently fair to Rand) notes in Goddess of the Marketthat, during the editing stage of The Fountainhead, Rand started using “Benzedrine… a widely prescribed amphetamine” (page 85).

By this time, Rand had already written We the Living, her scathing critique of Soviet Communism and statism more generally. She had already written Anthem, her dystopian novel about an independent man who fights the oppressive regime around him. And she had already written (but not finalized) The Fountainhead, the first of her two lengthy and highly ambitious novels. While Rand refined and developed some of her ideas between Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, all the kernels of her ideas were in the earlier works.

I join most moderns in thinking that regularly taking amphetamines is pretty bad for you, and moreover it can adversely affect your personality. But this notion that Rand’s ideas may be discarded merely because (after formulating most of those ideas) she took amphetamines is ridiculous and intellectually dishonest nonsense.

Let us continue. Lewis writes, “Ms. Rand mentored former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,” who “poured gasoline on the free market until it exploded.” In fact, Rand advocated the gold standard. So did Greenspan in his younger years, which is a big reason why Rand liked him. The fact that Greenspan became a backstabbing sellout who undermined all the principles Rand believed in and advocated is hardly Rand’s fault.

Next Lewis claims that, while Rand attacked welfare recipients as “looters,” “[w]e now know corporations are the real ‘parasites’ in an economic crisis.” Lewis claims that Rand “did not imagine executives would loot their shareholders, cause an economic crisis and then beg for government help.” His comment reflects such basic ignorance of the story of Atlas Shrugged that I must wonder whether he’s ever even read this novel which he regards as “bizarre.”

Indeed, most of the major villains of Atlas Shrugged come from favor-seeking businesses! Wesley Mouch begins life as a corporate lobbyist. He joins the major villains James Taggart, a railroad executive, and Orren Boyle, a steel executive. The Starnes siblings run a motor company into the ground, inspiring the strike at the heart of the story.

So Lewis’s claim that Rand’s “brand of laissez-faire capitalism led to corporations growing bigger” until absorbing subsidies and “telling big government what to do” is nothing but a lie. What led to modern corporatism was not laissez-faire capitalism but its opposite: the protofascist policies of the big-government “progressives.” (For example, see Amity Shlaes’s book for a description of how FDR’s key advisors idolized Soviet-style “planning.”)

In fact, Rand argued for the complete separation of economy and state, leaving government the sole function of protecting individual rights. She opposed all subsidies and bailouts, all anticompetitive laws from wage controls to trade barriers, and all forms of economic compulsion. She championed economic liberty, property rights, and strictly voluntary relationships.

For Lewis to blame Rand for the errors and economic distortions of her ideological opposites is the height of dishonesty.

The silver lining is that all the grotesque smear jobs against Rand raise her profile and stir the interest of honest readers.

***

Ellis Weiner commented July 18, 2011 at 4:01 PM
Lewis’ article sounds eminently open to criticism, but it sounds as though you equate any criticism of Rand with a “smear.” Similarly, criticism of Rand’s fiction is (“very often”) equated with “hysteria,” while you seek to prove Rand’s “genius” by appealing to her works’ popularity.

“There is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers,” you say. It’s true. There was also something about Jonathan Livingston Seagull that deeply touched millions of readers, as there is with regard to The Secret, The Bridges of Madison County, Action Comics, Interview With the Vampire, and so on. Like Atlas Shrugged, they, too, were and are unique.

It’s disingenuous at best to pretend to acknowledge that “often the popular strays from the good,” and then to attempt to legitimize “the popular” by talking about “deeply touching.”

What advocates of Atlas never acknowledge is how stacked a deck Rand dealt from: her heroes are all demi-gods and her villains are out of melodrama. The collectivization of the nations of Europe, which she uses to make her heroes seem even more fearless and embattled, add to a third-rate science fiction world (with its “lens” that conceals Gault’s Gulch, and the preposterous Rearden Metal, and the laughable motor invented by Galt, and the straight-from-the-fifties “Project X”) that she has the gall, or the simple obliviousness, to include in a novel ostensibly about “reality.”

Champions of Atlas write as though they had never actually read a decent novel. As Flannery O’Connor wrote to someone, Rand “makes Mickey Spillane seem like Dostoevsky.”

Admire “rationality” all you want. But defenses of Atlas Shrugged are at best exercises in wishful thinking and at words demonstrations of lousy taste in literature.

Or, to put it another way, read this: [link to ridiculous work “Atlas Slugged” omitted]

Ari commented July 18, 2011 at 4:27 PM
Ellis, I do not equate all criticisms of Rand with smears. Indeed, I have criticized Rand myself. I do not attempt to prove Rand’s genius by appealing to her popularity. Instead, I link to Diana Hsieh’s wonderful analysis of the novel. It is not true that all of Rand’s heroes are “demi-gods;” that’s just silly. Moreover, her heroes span the range of ability and interests. Rand never intended her novel to be “ostensibly about reality;” instead, she created a purely fictional world in which universal principles nevertheless operate. Obviously Galt’s motor is science fiction; as to whether Rearden Metal is “proposterous,” check out this link:
http://studentsforliberty.org/news/real-life-rearden-metal/
You seem to think you can prove Rand’s literature is bad by piling on the ad hominem attacks; obviously, that’s wrong. As for your own amateurish work that you use my web page to promote, you parody a straw man. -Ari

Neil Parille commented July 19, 2011 at 6:24 AM
It’s unfair that so many people blame Rand for Greenspan and the GEC.

That being said, why did Rand remain close to Greenspan until her death in 82? Harry Binswanger said that by the early 70s he realized Greenspan had departed from Objectivism. It’s interesting since Rand split with people.

According to Rand’s biographers, she admired Greenspan because he was older and more independent than many others in her circle.

Let’s Smear Ayn Rand!

With the release of the mediocre Atlas Shrugged film, smearing Ayn Rand has practically risen to a national pastime. No other literary figure I can think of has been subjected to such relentless and dishonest attacks. Usually, those who most viciously smear Rand display the least understanding of her ideas.

There are basically three reasons why Rand is the target of such nasty smear campaigns. First, because Rand was an atheist, she is hated and condemned by much of the right. The most notorious, and probably still the most blatantly dishonest, attack on Rand was published by National Review. Second, because Rand was an arch-capitalist, a defender of laissez-faire, and a harsh critic of the Soviet experiment, she is hated by most of the left. Third, the two early biographies about Rand were written by Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, hardly objective sources given their personal spat with Rand, and arguably vicious liars. Unfortunately, those two distorted biographies continue to set the tone for many of Rand’s detractors.

It is almost comical how people who otherwise have little in common nevertheless manage to create echo-chambers of anti-Rand smears. Consider the following line by Mark Moe from the Denver Post: “If this [alleged description of Rand’s ideas] sounds like 4th grade tantrumspeak, well, conservative columnist Michael Gerson agrees. Recently he called ‘Atlas’ a product of ‘adult onset adolescence.'”

Indeed, I find it baffling why an otherwise-respectable newspaper would publish a smear-job that so blatantly misrepresents Rand’s basic ideas that it almost reads as parody. Moe writes, “[T]hough Rand’s monomaniacal philosophy of Objectivism can be boiled down into a few simple axioms, her style is a study in verbose bloviation by characters who are little more than cartoonish megaphones for her stunted worldview.” Okay, then! Apparently enough smears strung together can substitute for an argument.

Or consider right-winger John Andrews’s bizarre claims about Rand:

Messianism is messianism: foolish at best, hypnotic at worst. The grandiosity of Barack Obama and the will to power of Saul Alinsky cry for relief. The country must be rid of them, and soon. But the antidote is not John Galt and Ayn Rand. The messianic similarities are too close. One political panacea can’t cure another.

The novel’s final scene tells how Galt “raised his hand and traced in space the sign of the dollar,” while nearby one of his disciples rewrote the Constitution. No sign of the cross for the atheist Rand; no great reverence for the Founders either. Her secular religion, Objectivism, would improve on both. Right.

Rand is similar to Obama in that both are “messianic?” That’s just silly. “No great reverence for the Founders?” That’s just willful ignorance; Rand consistently praised the Founders for creating the greatest nation on earth. (True, Rand offered some criticisms of the original Constitution, as did a great many of the Founders.)

Even Rand’s fair-weather friends often take cheap shots. For example, the following comment from Mike Rosen has absolutely no basis in reality: “There were many challenges in converting the book to a movie. At the top of the list was the task of satisfying the Ayn Rand Institute, the objectivist high priests who keep her flame burning and whose approval was a condition of the movie rights.” Rand’s estate, not the Institute, sold the movie rights long ago, without any such conditions. (That’s unfortunate; had the Institute had any significant say in the movie, it probably would have been a lot better.)

Obviously Rand made some mistakes in her life; which novelist hasn’t? She could have a fiery temper (hardly uncommon among creative types, though she could also be sweet as a kitten), and I don’t see how her affair with Branden can be regarded as anything other than a gigantic mistake. But some of Rand’s critics seem to think that, by recounting only Rand’s flaws while ignoring her many virtues, exaggerating those flaws, completely distorting her ideas, and stacking smear upon ugly smear, they can simply ignore what Rand had to say.

Fortunately, Rand’s audience has never been those who let other people’s smears substitute for their own thinking. So read Atlas Shrugged for yourself, and evaluate its literary merits, and its ideas, by your own reasoned judgment.

***

Neil Parille commented May 11, 2011 at 5:18 AM
Nathaniel Branden didn’t write a biography of Ayn Rand. He wrote two memoirs (actually one memoir which he revised). There is a little too much anger in the books.

Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand was good. In fact, the 2009 biographies have more or less confirmed the Branden accounts. Jennifer Burns said she found no significant errors in the Branden books and she had almost complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives.

Thus I think your claim that the Brandens are “arguably vicious liars” is untrue, at least when it comes to their accounts. They both lied to Rand during the affair, although much worse in the case of Nathaniel.

Valliant’s book misrepresents the Brandens and other sources. I’ve discussed it in detail.

Anonymous commented May 11, 2011 at 5:18 AM
How is criticism of atheism any more degrading than your constant bashing of Christians?

Neither action helps the cause of freedom.

A proper implementation of government would allow both belief systems to operate simultaneously .

Anonymous commented May 11, 2011 at 7:03 AM
Ari, please don’t confuse “smear” with “criticism.” And fer dog’s sake, stop reading Mike Rosen – a more superficial opinionator would be hard to find.

ReplyDelete

Ari commented May 11, 2011 at 9:28 AM
I never said criticizing Rand’s atheism counts as smearing! Rather, my point is that some who hate Rand’s atheism smear her because of it. Criticizing a view with which one reasonably disagrees is not “bashing,” it is making a reasoned argument. A proper government allows complete freedom of religion, and more broadly complete freedom of conscience, as consistent with the rights of others. (E.g., you can’t sacrifice somebody as part of your religion.)

bil_d commented May 11, 2011 at 11:43 AM
Ari,
Ayn Rand gets smeared predominantly because of other people’s religion, not as a direct result of her lack of it. A fine point, perhaps. Nevertheless, revealing..

It is due to the requirements of mystic belief systems (pick your flavor, it matters not) that when a follower of one runs into Ayn Rand they are put into a position of having to engage in all sorts of tortured defense mechanisms. And smearing her is almost involuntary.

Sad, but true.

Why Atlas Shrugged Part I Is a Good Movie

The views on Atlas Shrugged Part I range from lavish praise to moral denunciation. My reaction immediately after viewing it opening night was that it is “basically good,” despite some obvious problems with it. See myinitial review as well as some audience reactions.

Having just watched the film again, I stand by my initial review, though I enjoyed the film even more the second time.

I wanted to see the film again just to enjoy it on the big screen. However, I also wanted to check my initial estimation of it. Undoubtedly before I saw it I expected it to be an utter failure, yet I was nevertheless excited to see it, so I felt quite relieved that it turned out to be much better than I expected. But had I erred on the side of overemphasizing its merits while ignoring its flaws? No. This movie got a great deal right, much more than its detractors recognize. The fact that it also got a lot wrong explains why I describe it as good but not great.

I have seen several basic camps emerge in evaluating the film.

1. Some fans of Ayn Rand lavish the film with praise, regardless of the virtues and flaws of the movie, simply out of fandom.

2. Some fans of Ayn Rand bitterly condemn the film, refusing to acknowledge any virtues of the movie, because the film does have some flaws and is not consistently true to the spirit of the book. (The fact that the film lists David Kelley as a consultant, while Kelley remains on very bad terms with Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff, does not help in this regard. Disclaimer: while I recognize the value of some of Kelley’s older works, such as The Evidence of the Senses, I think he’s gone basically off track since then and that Peikoff’s criticisms of him are on target. Moreover, I think the film’s producers would have done far better to turn to somebody who actually knows something about film, such as the Ayn Rand Institute’s Jeff Britting.)

3. Various conservatives praise the film for its political messages, regardless of the quality of the film. This group likes the film basically for its propaganda value.

4. Various leftists condemn the film because they hate Ayn Rand and everything she stands for, and there’s no way they’d ever say anything good about anything relating to her.

5. Some, like me, enjoyed the film yet see in it virtues and flaws. Some basically didn’t enjoy it because they put more weight on the problems that I too recognize.

6. The large majority of Americans, meanwhile, wonder what the hell this is all about or ignore the film completely. But maybe the film will encourage some of these people to grab the novel off their shelves and blow the dust off of it.

Frankly, I’m as skeptical of those who cannot find fault with the film as I am of those who cannot find anything to like about it.

First I’ll review what I liked about the film. Obviously there are spoilers below!

The Cinematography: The Colorado landscapes are gorgeous. The bridge is stunning. The interior settings are rich. I particularly enjoyed the construction scenes of the John Galt line. This is all the more impressive considering the film’s limited budget.

The Acting: I have heard that the acting is “wooden,” claims I regard as silly. Some of the acting is superb: see Patrick Fischler as Paul Larkin, Rebecca Wisocky as Lillian Rearden, and Armin Shimerman as the bureaucratic scientist. Matthew Marsden does a very good job as the entitled sniveler James Taggart.

Unfortunately, the acting of the heroes is on the whole less-good than the acting of the villains. Of the heroes, my favorite performance is Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt. Though physically he does not match the Ellis of the novel, I liked what he did with the role. He turned nicely from bitter anger toward the Taggarts to warmth toward Dagny and Hank.

I really liked Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. I like the way he smiles lightly at his metal. I have heard the complaint that he smiles too much throughout the film; this is not the Hank of the novel. No, it is not, but the Hank of the novel is horribly emotionally repressed for the first third of the story, and that would have been extraordinarily difficult to portray in a stand-alone movie. Notice that Bowler invokes both the fond half-smile as well as a sarcastic, forced smile with his wife. His acting is anything but “wooden;” it is subtle and emotionally rich.

Those who call Taylor Schilling’s performance of Dagny “wooden” I think unfairly malign her intentionally understated performance. What I get from her performance is what I get from the Dagny of the novel: a very rich emotional life hidden (from those who don’t know her) by a hardened exterior. I thought she did this very effectively, though I grant some of her hand gestures are a little awkward.

The Setting: The film does a very nice job setting the context for the story. Very quickly it establishes that we are in the near future, that the global economy is falling apart, that rail is now the most critical component of transportation, and that bureaucrats continue to seize control over the economy.

True, the novel Atlas is timeless, almost an alternate reality of a slightly altered America of the past. But imagine how hard that would have been to set up in a film. You’d have to communicate to the audience why we’re seemingly in the past, but not America’s actual past. That would be incredibly difficult to do, and I think critics of this aspect of the film simply haven’t given much thought to the enormous challenge of setting the context. Remember, we are now several additional decades away from the quasi-historical setting that Rand envisioned.

My own solution, what I’ve envisioned, is a film shot in black-and-white, with certain scenes (including Galt’s Gulch) shot in color. But such an approach brings its own set of difficulties and risks.

The Themes: True, the film only skims the intellectual surface of Rand’s novel. But consider what the film does manage to convey. Dagny makes decisions based on her first-hand understanding of the facts. The producers move the world. There is a difference between producing versus mooching and forcing, and the latter are wrong. The film largely stays true to the intellectual underpinnings of Rand’s works, and it does so without (or only rarely) sounding didactic. That’s quite a feat.

The Pacing: I’ve heard the complaint that the film is too fast, that the audience won’t follow the story, etc. I disagree with all that. Yes, the film moves along briskly, as I think appropriate. Imagine the reviews if the film seemed to drag! The best comparison I can think of on this point is Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which also compresses an enormous amount of background into the opening sequence and moves the story along quickly. I’m not bothered by this. Anyone who pays attention to the movie can follow the basic turns of the story. To me the film is “richly layered” in a way that invites multiple viewings.

Next I’ll address some of the other criticisms I’ve heard about the film.

The Bracelet: I did think the film misses much of the emotional richness of the bracelet scene. Dagny is nearly out of her mind with anger during the scene, and that simply does not come across. Dagny should have confronted Lillian as she berated the Rearden bracelet in front of others, as happens in the novel. Still, if you forget the book, the scene works okay.

The Music: Frankly, I didn’t even notice the music my first viewing. I’ve heard complaints that it’s not spectacular. But usually if you’re thinking about the music while watching a film, the music isn’t doing its job. This time, because I was consciously thinking about the music, I did notice it, and I enjoyed it. I liked the pristine horns during the train run.

The Drinking: The first time I watched the film, I didn’t notice that the characters often have a drink in their hands. I noticed this time because others have commented on it. But it doesn’t bother me. I also noticed that Hank was drinking coffee at his anniversary party, sitting in bored solitude, which is just right.

The Sex: True, the sex scene between Dagny and Hank captures nothing of the emotional complexity of the book. Rather than include a silly “I want to kiss you” scene, I think the film should have cut straight from the train scene to a far more rowdy sex scene. That would have left all of Hank’s conflicts suitably in the background. Still, I didn’t hate the sex scene; I just don’t think it did much for the movie.

Ellis’s Strike: I didn’t notice this the first time, but I did after others pointed it out. Ellis’s strike is oddly split up. It’s as though he goes on strike, then comes back to burn his wells. But I think it’s not too hard for a viewer to make this work; just assume that Ellis had to stick around for a while to close down his business, which is actually how the characters often go on strike in the book.

Stadler: Yes, I was surprised by the casting for Dr. Stadler. But, again, try to forget the book and just contemplate whether the character works within the movie. He works okay (not great). Yes, the dialog about the three students seems to come out of nowhere. But, again, it’s fairly easy for a viewer to fill in the gaps: Stadler is generally disillusioned because he lost three great students, so now he doesn’t give a damn about Rearden, either. I don’t think that’s too big of a gap for a viewer to cross. A few words could have made the connection clearer.

Owen Kellog: Ethan Cohn’s “Owen Kellog” is again nothing like the book. I think the role was basically miscast and misacted. Still, it’s not impossible to believe that a mousy man is nevertheless quite competent at his job, and the viewer basically has to take his background on Dagny’s word, anyway.

Now I want to touch on the truly bad aspects of the film.

Hugh Akston: It’s absolutely impossible to believe that the Hugh Akston of the film is a brilliant philosopher. Hopefully they’ll fix that for future parts.

Dagny and Francisco: I still hated the scene where Dagny casually offers to sleep with Francisco to secure a loan. That line served no purpose, and it greatly distracted from the emotional impact of the sequence.

Francisco: I didn’t consistently hate the film’s portrayal of Francisco, but I didn’t like it, either. It’s impossible to believe that this scruffy barfly is some sort of great man. I think the actor could have done an okay job if he’d had a better understanding of the character or better direction (and a better costumer). One of the film’s missed opportunities is the first scene between Francisco and Hank; this should have been electric, but it was instead a little boring.

The Motor: In the case of the motor, I think the film needed to stray farther from the novel. You have this great climax of the train run, then this long and seemingly pointless quest for the motor. That time could have been spent building up the train run more completely. For example, the novel’s scenes of the room full of engineer volunteers, and the guardians of the rail, reveal the deep importance and emotion of the event, yet those scenes are absent from the film. In general, the train run, though inspiring, didn’t capture Dagny’s ecstatic state of mind, which means it didn’t set up the sex scene as well as it could have.

Some of my favorite films are far from cinematically perfect. I absolutely loved Equilibrium and saw it many times in the theater, though it too has some problems. Whedon’s Serenity remains one of my all-time favorites, despite some somewhat cheesy scenes with “Mr. Universe” and some less-than-spectacular digital effects. While I’ll never like Atlas as much as I like those other two films, it definitely joins my list of favored films.

I return to where I began: I think Atlas Shrugged Part I is a “basically good” film despite its flaws. And I just don’t get those who think the film deserves nothing but praise or nothing but condemnation. I still think I’ve made the best analogy: it’s Atlas Shrugged as directed by theFountainhead‘s John Snyte, though I would add, on a good day.

Atlas Shrugged Audience Reactions

After the Atlas Shrugged Part I opening in Westminster last night, I asked audience members what they thought of the film. Of course, I could catch only a few people, and some didn’t want to be recorded. (One lady who declined an interview said the film reminded her of Dynasty.) Here are all the interviews I did capture. Among this group the view of the film was relatively positive. See also my take.