Objecting to Objectivism: A Rant about Ayn Rand

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for his running mate has brought to the forefront the philosophies of Russian-born author Ayn Rand (1905-1982).  In her novels and essays, Rand laid out a philosophy she referred to as Objectivism.  Although Ryan is currently attempting to distance himself from Rand specifically due to her atheism and pro-abortion views, in the past he has very publicly embraced her Objectivist ideologies in regards to economics and capitalism.

I originally became intrigued with Ayn Rand’s philosophies about a decade ago, due to the adherence of comic book creator Steve Ditko to her principles.  A brilliant artist, in the early 1960s Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics.  After a falling out with Marvel, he left to work for various other companies, and eventually ventured into self-publishing.   His work took on a more and more Objectivist tinge over the years, culminating in his creation of such uncompromising vigilante crime-fighters as The Question and Mr. A.

Mr. A, by Steve Ditko
Mr. A, by Steve Ditko

I was very curious to learn who this Ayn Rand was, and what her Objectivist philosophies were.  I knew that Rand had written two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  However, each of these was several hundred pages long, and I admit that I did not think I had the patience or stamina to make my way through either book.  So instead I read Rand’s fifty page essay, “For the New Intellectual,” in which she sets down the tenets of Objectivism.

And, I have to say, I was quite awestruck by the sheer pomposity and arrogance with which Rand lays forth her ideas within “For the New Intellectual.”  At times it appears to be less of a foundation for an ideological movement than it does a smug, self-indulgent rant.

Rand offers up a bluntly simplistic summation of the entire history and philosophical outlook of humanity, basically regarding the two driving ideologies since the dawn of time as “Attila” and “the Witch Doctor,” i.e. those who impose an ideological system of belief by force & conquest, and those who impose it through superstition.

Rand seems to regard practically every movement throughout history as having been an aspect of either Attila or the Witch Doctor, or the pair working in complicity with one another.  The first significant worldwide break with either of these forces, in Rand’s view, is capitalism.

Rand lifts up capitalists upon a pedestal, looking upon them as intellectual giants who have helped raise humanity from the mire of pre-industrial times, and who have been rewarded for their noble efforts with nothing more than scorn and derision.

She regards the notion that the entrepreneurs of capitalism have a duty to society as an absurd idea.  Rand regards any form of altruism to be hideously unjust.  On several occasions, she likens society’s expectations of altruism to a primitive culture performing human sacrifices to the gods to bring benefit upon the tribe.  Except that, in her view, modern altruism causes even more suffering and misery.  Why should the capitalist be expected to give up the rewards of his endeavors to society, when he achieved those rewards solely through his superior intellect and driving abilities?

For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand
For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand

Rand’s worldview seems to have been shaped extensively by her early years.  Coming from a middle class Russian family, she witnessed her father losing everything to the Bolsheviks during the rise of the Soviet Union in 1917.  As a result, Rand appears to have developed a pathological hatred of socialism in any way, shape, or form.

As far as she is concerned, a mixed economy of capitalism and socialism will always fail, because any movement towards socialism, no matter how slight, will inevitably result in an economic system being totally subsumed by it.  She regards the natural outcome of socialism to be extreme suffering and misery, as witnessed in such “socialist societies” as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Capitalism, in Rand’s mind, can only work in pure, undiluted form, with absolutely no interference by the government.  As she regards it, “all the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy.”

What Rand completely fails to recognize is that human nature will inevitably corrupt attempts at pure capitalism, just as it does experiments in pure socialism.  Rand seems to think the intellectual giants of capitalism are at a mental pinnacle wherein they will always follow the path of reason, rather than that of irrationality and emotion.  She does not acknowledge that capitalists are just as susceptible to the lures of greed and power as any others.  Her whole underlying premise seems to be that capitalism is intrinsically good, and therefore anyone who practices pure capitalism will do good.

Rand, in denouncing altruism, writes of “man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  But in doing so, she turns a blind eye to the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution who did sacrifice others to themselves in their exploitation of the working class.  Rand sees a vast difference between serfdom and a wage-paying job.  But just because one is given a salary does not automatically mean that one is not still being exploited.  There are different degrees of exploitation.

Speaking of degrees, there is an appalling lack of the appreciation of the complexity of morals in Rand’s philosophy.  She regards ethics and morality as a completely black & white affair, deriding any attempts to recognize other viewpoints and achieve consensus.  She doesn’t seem to appreciate the multicultural nature of the United States.  Compromise and understanding are crucial to holding this nation together.

Of course, Rand seems pretty well dismissive of any non-US society, and her statements occasionally contain rather racist undertones.  She refers to America as “the greatest, freest country on Earth” and despairs that “our wealth should be given away to the savages of Asia and Africa, with apologies for the fact that we have produced it while they haven’t.”  She also writes “Americans have known how to erect a superlative material achievement in the midst of an untouched wilderness, against the resistance of savage tribes.”

I think that Rand’s ideology is especially dangerous in this day and age.  America cannot survive on its own.  The world is now more connected than ever.  There are great inequities in wealth not just throughout the world, but within the United States itself, and these have inevitably resulted in anger and violence.  Some of this has exacerbated by the de-regulation of the financial industry and the increased return to a laissez-faire approach to capitalism during the Bush/Cheney years.

If we hope to bring peace and security to our nation, we need to stop being greedy, and become more altruistic.  A self-centered view like Rand’s will only result in placing us in opposition to and isolation from the rest of the globe.  It will also result in even further growing economic & social inequalities within the United States itself, and a widening of the already-gaping divide between the ultra-wealth and the remaining 99% of the population.  And that is something that will inevitably destroy us.

Homophobic chicken

The recent controversy surrounding fast food chain Chick-fil-A has raised some interesting First Amendment issues.  Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy is a devout Southern Baptist.  The company has espoused many positions that fall within a strict, traditional interpretation of the Bible.  These include very strong opposition to homosexuality and same sex marriages.  This stance has made headlines within the last couple of months.  In regards to the issue, Cathy announced “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.  We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

In response, a number of politicians have come out in opposition to Chick-fil-A.  Among them was Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who declared “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population.”  Also weighing in was Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stated “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values. They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents.”  Both Menino and Emanuel strongly urged Chick-fil-A to back out of their plans to open restaurants in their cities, and even contemplated utilizing zoning regulations to block the company.

This controversy has also arisen here in New York City.  Council speaker Christine Quinn, a strong advocate of gay rights, started an online petition to ban Chick-fil-A in the Five Boroughs.  On the other hand, Mayor Mike Bloomberg took an opposing stance, saying that “You really don’t want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit.”

Looking at all this, my first reaction was, admittedly, to jump on the bandwagon with those calling for a ban on Chick-fil-A.  I completely disagree with their opposition to same sex marriage, which they have backed up by donating millions of dollars to ultra-conservative political groups.  I think that they are a bunch of reactionary bigots, and I would be happy to see them shut down.

But, on second thought, giving it further consideration, I realized that would be completely against the spirit of free speech in this country, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.  I seem to recall an expression along the lines that the First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect the speech you agree with, but rather the speech you disagree with.  And Chic-fil-A’s stance on gay marriage would definitely be a case of that.  As disgusting as I find Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A’s positions on homosexuality, they have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to express those views without fear of government censorship.  I feel it would be morally wrong, as well as very un-Constitutional, for the government to block Chick-fil-A from setting up shop due to their views.

(Yeah, believe it or not, I’m actually in agreeing with that know-it-all windbag Bloomberg here.  Between this and his push for stronger gun control, that now makes two positions I actually see eye-to-eye with the Mayor on.  Well, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.)

Besides, if Chick-fil-A was prevented from opening new stores by mayors or city councils that support gay rights, it would set a horrible precedent.  If that was allowed then, conversely, local politicians who were opposed to homosexuality could then ban businesses that practiced pro-gay policies.

So, yes, I say Chick-fil-A should be allowed to open in New York, Boston, and Chicago.  They must be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights.  But, at the same time, I strongly encourage everyone who disagrees with Chick-fil-A to exercise their right to free speech.  Speak out against Dan Cathy’s bigotry, and boycott the hell out of that homophobic fast food chain.  That’s definitely what I intend to do.

What the Richard Grenell affair tells us about the GOP

Time to once again venture back into the murky, controversial world of politics.

I think that there are a lot of reasons for the current deplorable condition of American politics.  As I’ve mentioned before, one of the main reasons for this is the increased polarization of ideologies.  While there is plenty of blame to place at the feet of both parties, I personally feel that the lion’s share is due to the actions of the Republicans.  President Obama, despite declarations by his opponents that he is an ultra-liberal radical socialist, is actually pretty much in the middle of the road.  He has shown on numerous occasions that he is open to compromise.  It is really the Republican leadership and their key supporters who keep drifting to the far right of the ideological spectrum.  This is especially evident in the events of the last few weeks that have taken place within Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

In his quest to become the next President, Romney has attempted to promote himself as a moderate, while at the same time courting the support of the conservative elements of the Republican Party.  In other words, he is trying to play both sides of the fence.  But, as can be seen in the case of Richard Grenell, this is an untenable position.

Who is Richard Grenell?  He is a Republican, a political strategist, a former spokesman to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s presidency.  He was hired to be the foreign policy & national security spokesman for the Romney campaign.

Oh, yes, did I mention that Richard Grenell is also openly gay, and that he has spoken out in support of same sex marriage?

The day after Grenell’s appointment, Bryan Fischer of the ultra-conservative American Family Association was quoted on Twitter as saying “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.”  Numerous other harsh criticisms from other figures in the Republican Party and the Religious Right followed on from this.

Despite all of Grenell’s knowledge & years of experience, and his endorsement by other former members of the Bush administration, the fact that he is homosexual and he believes in gay marriage is the defining characteristic of the man in the eyes of a significant portion of the Republican Party.  That Romney would appoint Grenell to his campaign was proof to them that their Presidential nominee was nowhere near “conservative” enough.

In reaction to this firestorm, Grenell was reportedly marginalized by the Romney campaign, shuffled off to the side, his expertise not called upon.  After only three weeks, an understandable frustrated Grenell resigned.  Romney’s camp claimed that they attempted to dissuade Grenell from departing, but the fact that they offered such a tepid defense of him in the proceeding weeks rather undermines their supposed loyalty.

The Grenell affair vividly illustrates just how extremist and myopic elements of the Republican Party have become.  This type of inflexible ideological stance has pervaded so many aspects of their platform.  They are no longer willing to compromise on most major issues.  They publicly embrace intolerance.  In this atmosphere, any sort of effective governing is going to be a near-impossible task.

I am not saying that all Republicans are like this.  Unfortunately, those aforementioned ultra-conservative elements are the most influential and vocal, continually dragging the entire Party further and further to the right.  The result is a political climate where the leaders and policymakers of half the government are almost completely out of touch with the moderate, mainstream beliefs held by most Americans.

Politics, Star Wars, and the Death of Civility

“There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates.  There is no interest in the common good.”

The above quote is from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, spoken by Senator Palpatine.  True, it was eventually revealed that Palpatine was Darth Sidious, a Sith lord who was using & manipulating the political corruption of his colleagues to engineer the behind-the-scenes fall of the Republic, replacing it with the tyrannical Galactic Empire.  That said, of late I have nevertheless often been recalling Palpatine’s words in regards to the political atmosphere in the United States of the 21st Century.

Darth Sidious

Ever since the highly contested 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the political atmosphere in the United States has become increasingly polarized.  This has become even more pronounced since the election of Barak Obama in 2008, with numerous ultra right-wing groups having sprung up to vilify the President, claiming he is not really a natural born US citizen, that he is a Communist, that he’s secretly some kind of stealth Muslim intent on undermining our national security & religious freedoms.

I am certainly not claiming that all of the blame for our current political woes lies solely with the Republicans.  There were plenty of Democrats who during the Bush years were complacent at best, complicit at worst, in bowing down to the post-9/11 fears and paranoia to give that administration a blank check to invade Iraq and trample on civil liberties.  There is plenty of self-interest and corruption in Washington to go around, and it is not exclusive to either party.

That said, it appears that the most virulently hateful and ignorant rhetoric of recent years has come from individuals or groups identifying themselves either with the Republicans or the Tea Party.  When you have prominent public figures spreading the aforementioned innuendo about Obama or, worse yet, praying for his death, you have to realize that the political atmosphere in this country has truly become toxic.

Especially coming to mind are Rush Limbaugh’s comments over the past week.  Limbaugh, weighed in on the recent contentious debate over whether or not religious-affiliated institutions should be mandated to provide contraceptives under their insurance plans.  Specifically, he took aim at Sandra Fluke, a third year student at Georgetown Law School, which is a Jesuit-run school.  Fluke testified before a House Democrat panel defending the HHS Contraceptive Mandate.

In response to Fluke’s statements before the House of Representative panel, Limbaugh took to the air, ranting “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. The johns.”

So this is what passes for political discourse in present-day America.  And it is, sadly, a typical example.  To say “there is no civility” would be a massive understatement.  Obviously Limbaugh is entitled to his opinions concerning the HHS Contraceptive Mandate.  But there is no need for him to engage in such base vulgarity and character assassination.

A few days ago, I briefly posted about Limbaugh’s tirade on Facebook.  Someone I am friends with on that site who is of a more Conservative persuasion than me took issue.  He argued that I would have no problem if a Liberal took similar potshots at a Republican.  My response was this: I’m angry at anyone on the “left” or the “right” who resorts to such denigrating tactics. No one deserves that sort of treatment.

For example, I virulently disagree with Conservative commentator Anne Coulter.  But I would never go on the radio and refer to her as “a slut” or “a prostitute.”  Similarly, I despise so much of what Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have been arguing on the Reprublican primary campaign trail.  But I would certainly not call for any of them to be killed.

Looking at that aforementioned toxic political atmosphere, I cannot help but acknowledge that it is only going to get worse.  Once the Republican party finally settles on a Presidential candidate, expect that individual to go on the attack like a rabid dog trying to get at Obama’s throat.  And, if every action truly has an equal and opposite reaction, the response from Democrats and those on the far-Left could be just as savage.

It’s going to be a looooong road to Election Day, folks!