Ayn Rand’s name pops up in the political news at least a few times a year. Both Ron Paul and his son Rand have praised her philosophy and her books. House Speaker and Invertebrate-at-Large Paul Ryan has called Atlas Shrugged his favorite book, and it’s allegedly required reading for his staff. Swearing fealty to Ayn Rand is almost a prerequisite for elected office as a Republican.
Outside of these circles, Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy, has a reputation for being heartless and selfish. Because that’s exactly what it is.
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. — Ayn Rand
If your takeaway from that is a license to do whatever you want to make yourself happy, well done. Objectivism glorifies the individual, which is a reaction to communism’s glorification of the group (see: 1984.) But it ends up favoring one kind of individual: the one who already has the money and power to make what they want, happen.
Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals. – Atlas Society
This definition sounds great until you dig a little more deeply and see that it calls for unfettered capitalism, no taxes, and no social safety net whatsoever. Objectivists feel that a right to property and a moratorium on “anyone initiating force on anyone else” means that the government taking tax money from you and using it to help someone else is not allowed. The model objectivist government exists for one purpose: to protect “producers” (they called them property owners back in the days of powdered wigs) and for national defense.
I often wonder how familiar politicians who claim to admire Rand really are with her philosophy. She strikes me as the Camus of political philosophers: everyone claims to be familiar with her work, but no one has read it. That movie about the architect with Cary Grant was excellent, though. They sure don’t make ’em like they used to!
What I find even more fascinating about Objectivism, however, is the origin of the name:
Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
A core tenet of Rand’s philosophy was that reality is objective. It is what it is if you will. This hardly seems worth pointing out, unless you’re a philosophy major.
Who would argue with a reality based on fact?
No one, assuming that you agree to use their set of facts.
This core tenet gives Objectivism an uncompromising vision of what truth is. It’s here that the beliefs that make Objectivism unworkable resemble the situation that is currently making our government fall apart like a campaign promise.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s brilliantly overrated magnum opus, John Galt, Rand’s hero who conquers the world by fleeing from it, lays out the core principles of Objectivism in an interminably long speech.
“This is John Galt speaking. I’m the man who’s taken away your victims and thus destroyed your world. You’ve heard it said that this is an age of moral crisis and that Man’s sins are destroying the world. But your chief virtue has been sacrifice, and you’ve demanded more sacrifices at every disaster. You’ve sacrificed justice to mercy and happiness to duty.
The greatest of your philosophers (Aristotle) has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself … a leaf cannot be a stone at the same time , it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
Note: reading Rand in an editor is hard, because of the interminable urge to edit it.
Objectivists love quoting the “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” part as if it is some deeply profound revelation, handed down on a smoke-stained, excessively-wordy, tablet.
I’ve been going through our old bookcases and getting rid of books that I either already have in digital form or will never read again. Many of these books are comics. Last weekend I came across an independently produced book by Steve Ditko.
Spider-Man, everyone’s favorite web-slinger, was co-created with Stan Lee by writer-artist Ditko. (Sorry fanboys, I am not revisiting the argument over who-did-how-much here.) Ditko left the book over creative differences relatively early in its history. According to some, these differences related to Ditko’s recent interest in Rand’s philosophy. The early days of Marvel Comics are the stuff of legend, and by “legend” I mean relentless gossip mainly recounted by people who weren’t there.
Ditko went on to create a few more characters, most of whom the casual comic fan wouldn’t recognize but that the serious fan probably knows and loves, like The Question, The Creeper, Shade, Mr. A (see “A is A” in the quote above) and others.
The Question, by the way, was the inspiration for Rorschach in the Watchmen graphic novel and film. His rigid ideology was a parody of Ditko’s work.
At some point Ditko found Objectivism, and it changed his work immensely, to the point that it looks like it made it difficult for him to work in the industry. Not because of the quality of his work (although some may have considered it “old-fashioned,”) but because his evolving creative vision made working on mainstream characters untenable.
Because of his objective reality.
The book I came across was Lazlo’s Hammer. (Yes, Laszlo is misspelled. I have a first edition, printed before Ditko caught his error.) The book weaves an Objectivist-fueled rant about creators and destroyers from the story of Laszlo Toth attacking Michaelangelo’s Pieta in the Basilica with a hammer.
It’s brilliantly done. Ditko will always be one of comics’ best visual storyteller’s, even if his prose is not always perfect, Laszlo’s hammer is a perfect metaphor for his point, and the artist creates a compelling parable from it.
But as I read it, I find myself comparing Ditko’s (and Rand’s) uncompromising philosophy to today’s polarized political climate, rather than exploring the philosophy itself.
Declaring reality “objective” isn’t merely stating a fact about what reality is, it’s defining two extreme boundaries upon which all of reality must lie. You can see it in the image above. Benevolent or Malevolent. Reason or Anti-Reason. And, inevitably, Producer or Parasite. Custom-written for opponents of that social safety net.
If it sounds to you like there’s no room for a grey area, I’ve got an image from the end of the book for you.
The Grey man: corrupted, self-blinded, crippler, deformer, cheater, enslaver, etc. There is no grey. It’s Black or White.
Compromise isn’t just wrong it’s immoral.
When one draws such stark lines, things fall apart. Not because it’s impossible to resolve conflicts between two or more parties, but because the parties themselves splinter.
Principles are important, but when they become dogma and ideologies, things go wrong. There certainly are principles that should never be compromised. However, there are also goals that are so important that compromise is worth it to reach them.
John Ashcroft is often quoted as saying “There are two things you find in the middle of the road a moderate and a dead skunk. I don’t want to be either one of them.”
The right and left sides of many roads are littered with dead animals too. They were dragged out of the way so that people could continue making progress.