Thursday, November 19, 2009

Anti-Rand Backlash: Methinks Thou Doth Protest Too Much

With the publication of two new biographies and amid unprecedented world wide interest in Ayn Rand, a predictable backlash has begun emanating from both the left and the right.

Blundering out of the ad hominem gate with title: "...Rand was a Nut", The National Review comes perilously close to offering a logical argument when it claims that "her philosophy is deeply problematic and morally indefensible." However, the author proceeds to resurrect the notoriously dishonest 1950's Whittaker Chambers hit piece then quotes William F. Buckley who wrote about her

desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral; but also there is the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is in itself intrinsically objectionable.
Is it me or is it ironic, perhaps "intrinsically objectionable", that a hardened devotee of faith, particularly Catholicism, accuses an epic defender of reason of "unyielding dogmatism"? If reason and logic are "dogma", then what exactly is dogma?

It is not an aside that Mr. Buckley professed to idealize the concept of "transcendence". It was in his (or the Pope's) role as a Platonic-Christian Philosopher King that he channel God's revelations to the filthy masses. By rejecting Rand's secular approach , Buckley and his conservative followers tethered the religious right to capitalism by firmly entrenching the implication that no scientific, logical argument can be made in favor of rights and capitalism - a position that has all but destroyed freedom in America. Perhaps the only truth in his statement is that conservatism is indeed incompatible with Rand's philosophy - as it is incompatible with reality and freedom.

Meanwhile, the left, as represented by this article and this one, reminds us why, well, they are the left. As usual, we are inundated by vicious ad hominem and snarky ad populum feverishly penned by those who can not be bothered to study her work. As always, we are treated to the anti-Randian uber strawman who evidently yearns to step on the "lice" infested "parasites" who "barely deserve to live." Like a non-fiction Rorschach test, these anti-Rand diatribes reveal more about the writer than the writee. After all, what are we to make of intellectuals who refuse to actually study their subject's work and formulate logical arguments?

And this is really the point. Her detractors rarely take on her ideas. At different times and for different reasons, without offering an actual argument, they variously object to her method (reason), her ethics (egoism), her politics (capitalism), or to her (she was a human being). The "arguments" often take the following concrete forms:

"Wait, you mean she thinks she's objectively right?" She's nuts - not serious - real life is grey.

"Wait, you mean she upholds selfishness?" She thinks the strong should wantonly crush the weak.

"Wait, she upholds capitalism?" She is a fascist shill for corporate cronyism

"Wait, she is an atheist?" To hell with this cold, implacable devil.

"Wait, she made mistakes in her life?" Her projection of a moral ideal is invalid and/or she is not worthy of my cultish devotion like Jesus, David Koresh, or Obama.

All of these fill different philosophic and psychological buckets that I have blogged about extensively. The most obvious and most fundamental is the epistemological false alternative between the subjectivist left and the dogmatist right which holds out for man the wonderful choice of becoming an acid-tripping hippie or a bible thumping zombie. The post modern rejection of absolutes leads these critics to dismiss any principled stand as dogmatic posturing while the conservatives charge Rand with "unyielding dogmatism" because as an advocate of reason and reality she will not yield to their brand of dogmatism, namely, religious mysticism.

Running a close second is the utter misapprehension of her view of selfishness which equates her conception of rational self-interest to the free wheeling hedonist whimsically asserting his Nietzschean ubermensch within.

And, of course, for the politically minded, there is always the false equation of America's mixed economy with her vision of laissez-faire capitalism such that she can be castigated as an apologist for any bizarre, market distorting catastrophe hatched by Washington's finest in collusion with Orren Boyle businessmen.

But, I have to say, the most grating to me is the hysterical emphasis on her personal life. After all, if Newton cheated on his girlfriend would it change the truth of his theory of gravity? If Aristotle shoplifted a toga, would it change the truth of the laws of logic? Certainly, the biographies of great people should and do hold interest for valid reasons, but obsessing over the details of another's life and disregarding the essential import of their ideas is the foundation of the cult mentality, is it not? (Ironically, "cult worship" and "fetishism" is the charge leveled by these people at her admirers!)

The deeper reason underlying the focus on Rand's personal life is epistemological. As I argued earlier, the left does not even entertain the possibility of objective truth and therefore regards any principled argument as equivalent to a form of religious dogma while casting principled adherents as naive bumpkins. I believe this philosophical skepticism has several primary consequences.

First, it leads them to dismiss Rand's popularity as a fad on par with a pop cult like Scientology and to smear her work as unserious within academia. Second, in their mind, debunking this "religion" consists not in objectively refuting its claims (the truly educated know truth is impossible), but rather involves outing the Revealer of the purported dogma as flawed or hypocritical. Consider the more recent academic obsession with airing the dirty laundry of revered figures such as Jefferson and the Founding Fathers. Emphasizing the Revealer's fallibility serves to reinforce their own their own flawed view of rationality and morality, i.e., it appears to further the notion that man's fallibility and lack of omniscience renders rationality and objective morality to be unattainable. In this view, man is destined to hopelessly stumble through the grey fog of life's eternal caprice.

Of course, such a view itself represents a flawed view of rationality. In a
previous post, I quoted Professor Eric Daniels:
But rationality does not mean infallibility; it means that one is capable of choosing to observe the available facts and go by logic and that one does so. Nor does it preclude the possibility of mistakes; rather, it is the means of detecting and correcting mistakes.
To all of the critics, I ask only this - just make an argument. Show me. I am reasonable.

27 comments:

C. August said...

Excellent post. I particularly appreciated your mention of the dirty laundry exposes of Jefferson and others. I hadn't made that connection to the constant whining about Rand's personal life, but it makes a ton of sense. Like you mentioned, they think that since no objective truth is possible, attacking the subject is seen as a valid way of disputing their subjective truth. (My narrative is better than your narrative. By what standard? My feelings.)

Doug Reich said...

C.,

Thanks much.

This whole issue has bugged me for a long time I think I'm touching on something although not sure if I totally have it.

It seems that anyone who is revered as a symbol of some objective standard of virtue is trashed by the left.

You even see this in politics with the ethical double standard applied to republicans versus democrats. Clinton can rape his subordinates but is given a pass whereas if someone like Newt Gringich forgets to fill out a form he is trashed as a monster.

(I blogged about this political effect in the context of religious altruism here:

http://dougreich.blogspot.com/2008/04/ethics-politics-and-impotence-of.html

http://dougreich.blogspot.com/2008/11/why-republicans-keep-failing.html

Subjectivism renders them to be morally unassailable as they recognize no standard. However, anyone claiming standards then failing is regarded as the worst kind of monster. Sort of a "ha, ha, you are a piece of crap just like all of us..." There certainly is the philosophical issue but I imagine there is a psychological by-product of this that is somewhat more difficult to pin point.

The more someone represents or upholds some objective standard, the more they seek to bring him down as if to emphasize that human fallibility or hypocrisy somehow renders the concept of rationality and objective morality to be impossible.

Since any normative claim to them is suspect, it is enough to simply out the claimant.

This is sort of a "Jesus" standard of knowledge where you start with the theory that there is either a) total subjectivism or b) divine revelation. Therefore,"if we can humanize Jesus, we can show his dogmatic revelations to be non-divine or phony....but...if he is perfect, then we will have to cult follow him." The focus then shifts to the claimant and once they are seen as flawed, they fail the Jesus standard and all is well in the skeptical universe. They can go back to "nothing matters, no standards, etc."

In their mind, the idea of an objective morality has been so discredited by their modern philosophers, that any claim can not be taken seriously.

Look forward to your thoughts.

C. August said...

You know, I was going to mention Jesus, in that there have been attempts to humanize him, which means degrade his altruistic saintly image and thus attack all of religion (what was that movie where it showed his "lost years" of sleeping with a prostitute?). It's not the same as attacking Rand and Jefferson -- they really do represent objective values, while Jesus is their antithesis -- but I suppose if the left is systematically trying to tear down all objective value, then the fact that they don't actually know what it is means that they'd see them all as the same kind of target.

And I had written in my comment but edited it out the basic idea of the false dichotomy you present: either total subjectivism or "revealed" truth. So we're definitely on the same page with this.

So on one side we have the nihilist skeptics, and on the other the religious mystics. Both agree that "perfect" knowledge is impossible, while the former delights in not knowing anything, and the latter dreamily looks to the heavens.

I think you said it best:

The most obvious and most fundamental is the epistemological false alternative between the subjectivist left and the dogmatist right which holds out for man the wonderful choice of becoming an acid-tripping hippie or a bible thumping zombie.

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

I definitely think you're onto something with this post as well. Good writing.

It is the ideas that are most relevant and they are the things being discussed least unless they are being completely misrepresented and misunderstood. I have read a lot of the post-biography publication smear articles and they have definitely been insistently focused on personalities rather than ideas, which is a key tactic of someone looking to engage in smearing. I guess they figure if you can handle it by subverting a personality, that is much easier than making an argument against an idea.

Richard said...

The people who dislike Rand the most appear to be experts in every minute detail of her personal life (as they see it), yet fail to go into detail about her actual ideas. You get the impression they may have read half of the Fountainhead before writing it off then reading the equivalent of an Enquirer article to form their opinion.

Erik said...

Hello,

A good post, and I agree with you on most parts. Ayn Rand is often criticized very unfairly, on vague grounds, with a lot of "ad hominem" attacs and by people who seldom seems to have really read her works. And I do think that there's at least some truth in your analysis about the psychological reasons behind this.

But at the same time, I do think that part of this can also be found in the manner that Rand herself and many of her admirers have presented the objectivist ideas. I myself, although I agree with her, sometimes find her tone to be somewhat agressive and antagonistic.

One example of this is her treatment of other philosophers, the most striking example being Immanuel Kant. This man most people think of as an Enlightment figure, and the man who saved science from the skepticism of thinkers like David Hume. Although his moral philosphy probably doesn't have so many admirers today, he is still regarded as "A Great Man". When Rand then says that this man was not merely misguided or wrong about certain things, but actually "the most evil man in history", it is perhaps not that strange that people are in some way provoked (this of course does have a lot to do with the kind of post modern mentality that you discusses, with it's aversion to pointing out anything as simply "evil" or "good"). I myself of course find Kant to be an irrational philospher, but the most evil man in history? No, probably not.

I do understand why she makes that kind of pronouncments, and I don't think that that's always altogether wrong. But it's not what people expect from intellectuals. So well, the reaction perhaps isn't always that hard to understand.

Kevin said...

I think that you are under-broad in asserting that the left attacks anyone revered as a symbol of some objective truth. Both the left AND the right attack anyone they feel creates a substantial competing perspective to the one they are pedaling. They either embrace and consume or attack, depending on which is more likely to produce the best outcome.

I understand the overt political motivation that drives this. I also understand the method: the destructive personal narrative. Creating ugly narratives is what political parties do best. Think about how many politicians the left has branded as either idiots (hung successfully on NUMEROUS politicians, not just Bush), or hypocritical angry haters. These are the preferred narratives of the left. The right prefers to create narratives of people being detached ivory-tower elitists. They also like to brand people as power-hungry control freaks.

They don't choose this method because they lack logical arguments. They choose it because they have learned that creating broad narratives is more effective than logical argument. As pragmatists, that is the only governor they care about (does it work).

Unfortunately, the negative personal narrative is EXTREMELY effective. Once a narrative sticks it is almost impossible to shake it. It works because most people really aren't interested enough to determine the truth for themselves, or if they are they think that listening to several one-sided political perspectives is "investigating" the truth.

Having seen the permeating, self-reinforcing and destructive power of the political narrative first hand when I lived in Africa, I can vouch for its effectiveness. It's also one of the reasons I can barely bring myself to vote every election. It's a powerful example of just how far down you can drag those around you when you abandon reason and morality in favor of meaningless pragmatism.

Neil Parille said...

I can understand that Objectivists don't like it when people focus on the negative aspect of Rand's life, but I'll make a couple of observations:

1. Not too long ago, official Objectivists such as Leonard Peikoff denied all this negative stuff (with the exception that Rand was too prone to anger). For all I know Peikoff still takes this position, notwithstanding the fact that Rand's bad side has been amply demonstrated in the two recent biographies. Rewriting Rand's life to make it accord with official dogma makes Objectivism look like something of a cult.

2. Rand thought that her personal life was a reflection of her philosophy. She often psychologized others. Sauce for the goose . . .

-Neil Parille

Doug Reich said...

Let me throw something into the debate.

Marx's followers systematically murdered tens of millions of people. Yet, academics seem to not question the validity of Marxism on that basis. Yet, b/c some O'ists are regarded as a'holes, O'ism has a bad name. Why?

I know nothing of Marx's life, as I'm sure very few do. Does anyone care? Was he a mean guy, did he yell at people, did he have affairs?

Were not most geniuses throughout history known to be irascible, eccentric, etc.? Does it matter?

In a thousand years, assuming all goes well, what will be remembered about Ayn Rand? This is an interesting point especially for more academic philosophers - will she be credited with anything?

I have some thoughts but curious what others think.

Alexander said...

would it not be hypocritical for someone to not practice the principles they preach. It seems to me that Ayn Rand espoused particular ideas but her personal life was a negation of those ideas.

Doug Reich said...

yes, if would be hypocritical

If newton explained gravity then jumped out a window and died, would that negate gravity or be proof of it

Kevin said...

Sorry, but being a hypocrite may make you less of a person, but it doesn't validate or invalidate anything you happen to be saying.

The left loves the hypocrite argument because the only real way to avoid being one is to be a nihilist since then even a serial killer qualifies as not being a hypocrite.

I hate the hypocrite argument because I'm a parent. Like most parents I often try to inculcate values in which i believe even though I am unable to practice them perfectly. Honesty is a good example. I admit to having been dishonest from time to time in my life. Should I stop telling people that the world would be a MUCH better place if we were all more honest?

Hypocrisy is just another fallacious argument that distracts from what is being discussed.

Alexander said...

you shouldn't stop telling people but actions speak louder than words and if your actions are contrary to your words it does raise an eyebrow. If you act dishonest and go around talking about honesty then why should I listen to you?

Doug Reich said...

alex,

Would you only be honest if someone told you to AND the person telling you was perfect?

If someone explained to you logically why honesty was moral and practical, wouldn't that be enough?

Alexander said...

If someone explained to you logically why honesty was moral and practical, wouldn't that be enough?

It would be yes.

Doug Reich said...

I have been generally arguing that the personal life of Rand is really inconsequential for the many reasons I have cited. I can see how someone could say "if someone is going to make an argument about ethics and the proper way to live life, then shouldn't you observe their life...were they successful...as sort of an empirical test...?" Certainly, you would need a lot of facts and context to make this kind of judgement - people are not molecules. Again, someone could discover truth on an unparalled scale and fail to live by their own philosophy.

In that context, I do want to make my own views known.

I do not know the nitty gritty details of her life and I have no interest whatsoever. But, based on the general facts of her life, I will say that I think her life and her work are a soaring testament to her philosophy.

Here was a femaie Russian emigre, who escaped the horrors of Bolshevism and landed in the United States. She was writing during America's Red Decade during the Great Depression, WWII, etc. She faced massive rejection at every turn, yet, she became a best selling author and someone who has changed the course of the world. She did live her philosophy and if she wasn't perfect, who cares. Look at what she did and what she left the world.

I admire her in the same way I admire so many other geniuses throughout history and I derive a lot of inspiration from studying other people's lives. The myopic focus on her fallibility is an injustice, in my view, and I think the reasons why have been touched on previously.

Hopefully, the focus can be put back on the ideas where it belongs.

Alexander said...

I do think the ideas are all that matters at the end of the day- at least they do for me- However I do appreciate the insight regarding the
"ha, ha, you are a piece of crap just like all of us..." Thats new to me and perhaps the underlying psychological problem for this is self-hatred.

Doug Reich said...

Thanks for your comments Alex and everybody else for adding to an interesting discussion.

Another important point I would like to add:

Philosophy is a starting point. It deals with the broadest abstractions and provides a broad framework for why and how to live properly and deal with others. But holding even a rational philosophy does not guarantee anything.

Life is complicated. parenting, career, day to day relationships, etc. Philosophy is critical as an abstract guide but day to day, minute to minute, one's decisions involve a host of factors and are affected by many things including psychology and/or psychiatry.

Anyone who thinks having a rational philosophy is going to somehow guarantee success or make them happy is sorely mistaken. (I think it's necessary but not sufficient in academic lingo). I think many people who tend towards rationalism (abstractions not tied to reality) tend to have this type of approach.

Also, art is an essentialized projection. Rand's characters are just that. They are like Michelangelo's David or The Doryphorous. Does anyone think that David spent every waking minute standing in a contaposto pose looking studly and confident? That's not the point of David or John Galt. Those who are looking for a sort of day to day life coach in John Galt or David or any other literary figure are mistaken.

This is part of the reason I think it is inappropriate to judge one person's every action over a long life as some sort of litmus test for the validity of a philosophy. Certainly, given the proper context, if someone or a large sample of individuals acted on their philosophy and were constantly wrong, unhappy, unsuccessful, an axe murderer, suicidal, etc. you would have to question the ideas on empiricism alone! But that is not the case as I pointed out in previous comment.

My big picture point is that philosophy per se has to be put into its proper perspective as it relates to life. It is absolutely vital to rationally and consciously identify your philosophy but that is a starting point not the end. The implications of Objectivism in day to day life are monumental and we need smart people to help guide us in many different areas. Scrutinizing Rand's every move or denigrating literary figures for not being "realistic", at best, misses the forest for the trees.

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

Being inspired by something such as "ha, ha, you are a piece of crap just like all of us..." is in itself a psychological confession... on YOUR part. I think that it indicates, in the least, a kind of pessimism about man's supposedly inevitable fallibility and failure. Waiting for the moment that you could say: "I knew it!".

I have, for a long time, attempted to figure out what it is that people like so much about reality TV shows. Personally, I think that many people who watch such drivel are worshippers of schadenfreude. If I'm right, then I'm right to be disgusted too.

I hope that's not what I just witnessed on the part of Alex. Sad, if so.

People want choices for their own life. They want freedom and choice and the ability to improve their lot in life. You've probably struggled in your life. To the extent that you're successful, it's probable.

When you judge a philosophy, the proper context on which to do it is your own experiences and thoughts. Not those of others. Not the life of Rand or Kant or Aristotle. This is the basis on which a philosophy is understood. (The basis upon which anything in your life is understood).

If you're to judge a philosophy on a biography, you might just as well judge philosophy based on Us Weekly. Good luck with that, Dr. Schadenfreude.

Mike said...

"Life is complicated. parenting, career, day to day relationships, etc. Philosophy is critical as an abstract guide but day to day, minute to minute, one's decisions involve a host of factors and are affected by many things including psychology and/or psychiatry."

Absolutely. I'm probably the biggest hypocrite of all on the Objectivist blogs because I work for the state government. In fact, even worse: I work as a legal analyst in a role within the state government of making sure that the onerous boot of regulation is as comprehensive and effective as it can be. There are days when I just shake my head at the audacity of the policy decisions that come forth from "on high."

However, the important distinction: I do not drink the kool-aid. I know exactly what I am doing. Right now, I need the money, so I can't quit my day job and subsist purely on book sales royalties. I have to keep a job, and so I go in there and do the most exacting, technically flawless job I can do. It would do nobody any good for me to run the risk of being fired for sandbagging. I'd be replaced by a True Believer, to the detriment of myself AND everyone else.

One day, I'll be able to shrug completely and start building a library of work that can wait for publication until there is a free market to receive it. In the meantime, we do what we must -- and I think it's wisest to see that for what it is, and not lie to oneself about the nature of it.

"Also, art is an essentialized projection. Rand's characters are just that."

Rand is a romantic author, and today's "literature" is overwhelmingly naturalist. It is entirely... natural that her work be derided by today's critics. They're following their philosophies, just as Rand followed hers.

Mike said...

"I have, for a long time, attempted to figure out what it is that people like so much about reality TV shows. Personally, I think that many people who watch such drivel are worshippers of schadenfreude."

This is true for, I would say, the vast majority of such shows. After all, isn't the "money shot" in The Apprentice supposed to be seeing Trump tell some desperate contestant "You're Fired"? Who the hell gets off on seeing that sort of thing? Gee, you failed, ha ha, you're such a loser for even trying! Or shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and such -- I see the commercial teasers and all I can think is "Yeah, if there's one thing I'd like to spend my valuable time doing, it's watching some jerk yell at and demean a bunch of contestants for an hour." Pass. Then there are shows like "Wipeout," which might as well have been titled "Ow, My Balls!" in a case of life imitating art (Idiocracy). The romance-type reality shows are such excrement that they're barely worth acknowledging.

There are TWO reality shows I watch and will continue to watch. In both shows, contestants are pitted against a generally fair and challenging course or game, and are expected to perform at a high level in order to succeed. There is a sensatonal lean, of course, as with all media creations, but I have found both to be worth the time to watch for many seasons now. (And it's no accident, I think, that both are still going.) They are Survivor and The Amazing Race. Reasonable people may disagree, but I think an intelligent, objective person would find a lot to appreciate in both.

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

@Mike:

I think what is telling to me is that even with the better shows on reality tv, that in my attempts to watch them I have always found some section that I always wish to fast forward through. Generally it's some section where a losing party is just acting out. This is a key component of the formula and I don't think it's accidental. That they have some recognition of achievement on the shows is to their credit. But they place too much focus on creating "misery porn".

Doug Reich said...

I thought inevitably this conversation would lead to...reality shows, and it has:)

Lot's of schadenfreude out there, but I personally love "So You Think You Can Dance". All around great show, artistic, inspirational, passionate, and I have learned to appreciate the art of dance so much more.

In fact, many of the shows are about achievement, however, the "look at the dumb guy who is making a fool of himself" is always there and perhaps, always will be.

Another angle, maybe reaching but these shows seem to also be a statement that "regular" people are often fascinating and that actual life has a lot of drama. Kind of some individualism/Americanism there.

Neil Parille said...

Doug,

I recommend the new biographies even if one is not particularly interested in the facts of Ayn Rand's life.

You say that "she [Rand] faced massive rejection at every turn . . . ."

As Heller shows, that's not the case. Rand exaggerated the difficulties that she faced.

Alexander said...

I don't have a TV in the first place.

garret seinen said...

Doug, the more I think about it the more I'm convinced The critics are writing for their own audience of AR rejecters/discounters.
Your first post :
Tall poppies, clay feet etc. I've seen the tolerance people have for fellow travelers in the union movement or in churches and I've thought it to be an acceptance of the other party when gave up their independent thinking, their minds, copying the committed. Church people are least tolerant of atheist and union joiners are very unhappy with anti-union independents.
re your ethic/hypocrisy post:
In her time, Ayn Rand matured, surrounded by a nonobjective society. Early judgments of her life were done by people steeped in the morality of the day. Even today,her critic still use a morality that she rejected to judge her, though clearly she regarded that morality to be evil. And are we making the same mistake in looking at her morality when she always said, we need to be a ruthless judge...of our own morality.
Finally, reality shows:
Aren't they popular because we see people taking chances - a bright spot in an otherwise boring life?

angel said...

i am especially fond of laynie browne’s take in her 2007 book daily sonnets…lovely gentle surprising fun familial. she takes after bernadette mayer…
have you done a sonnet prompt for read/write/poem yet?
online informal