Monday, August 27, 2012

One Nation Under Galt

Pity the liberal reader of Ayn Rand. Not only must he contend with the expanse of Rand's prose--a literary South Dakota is it, flat and largely uninspiring but for some notable exceptions--so is he also assailed with the barbs of his left-of-center friends. The progressive estimation of Rand hovers between punchline and taboo, wherein she is either too self-evidently ludicrous or morally abhorrent to be considered, and so any prolonged engagement with her, especially by one of their own, liberals view with an admixture of bemusement, condescension, and barely-concealed irritation. (Many of this blog's readership have scoffed at my efforts more often than not, I'm sure. You know who you are.)

What a relief it was, then, to find a fellow traveler in Gary Weiss. Weiss, a seasoned reporter of the Wall Street beat, was like many observers aghast not just at the 2008 Financial Crisis and the damage it wrought, but at the tepid measures taken afterward to prevent it from happening again, and the concerted efforts by Congressional Republicans and the Tea Partiers to thwart even those modest efforts, all the while proclaiming the wisdom of a literary and philosophical pariah. In Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, Weiss sets out to understand Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and more than that its adherents, from low-level Tea Party organizers to the leaders of the various Objectivist factions, in order to understand her appeal and growing influence in our politics. In doing so he re-read Rand's novels and had to deal first-hand with the collision of ideas on the place of government that are fundamentally at odds with his own.

I spent much of the book nodding in recognition. Here, the almost guilty enjoyment of bad literature: "Oddly... I was enjoying her novels and becoming vaguely simpatico to her beliefs, even though they were contrary to everything I had been taught and experienced since infancy. Her novels were compelling and persuasive in ways that I couldn’t quite put my finger on."

There, the sense of being inspired even in spite of oneself: "Reading Rand’s books again recently, even as I was put off by her dogma, made me feel better about myself. I regret not having read Fountainhead more carefully when I was a kid. That book and perhaps Atlas might have changed my life for the better, and might have given me greater confidence to identify and pursue my own self-interests over the years."

Most palpable is Weiss's almost lurid fascination with Objectivism, which, though he cannily observes is almost pathologically anti-empirical, is internally consistent and provides a systematic approach to viewing the world that can feel more intellectually satisfying than progressivism's at-times fuzzy and (let me stress, necessarily) ambiguous end results-focused ethics. So excited by it is he that in his interactions with Rand-admiring Tea Partiers, he positively delights in the search for a full-blown Objectivist, one who doesn't try to square Christianity with the Randian circle.

With a few notable exceptions, including a fascinating interview with Oliver Stone, who tried to direct a more humane adaptation of The Fountainhead, Weiss's interactions with these mostly humble folk form the bulk of the book, and for good reason. It's easy enough to crack wise about yet another middle-aged white person at a rally with a John Galt sign. It's less easy to do so when a multitude of figures from disparate backgrounds independently testify to the impact of Rand's works:

Yet again I was hearing how Rand had crystallized her readers’ opinions into the hard rock of ideology. Again, I heard the same “confirmation factor” that Pamela Geller [yes, that one], Iris Bell, and others had described, almost word-for-word, as if they were comparing notes. Rand spoke to something deep inside these very different people— the Long Island career woman, the Chicago-born graphics designer, and the small-town California lawyer.... 
Atlas Shrugged originally inspired [Mark Meckler, organizer of Tea Party Patriots], he said, because it appealed to him that “people who do the right thing, working hard and producing the best they possibly could for the sake of it would seek out other people who were doing the same. To me it was inspiring that there are groups of people who do this. I knew how I was, how I worked. I did my best for the sake of doing my best. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone else.”  
Meckler described himself as not the “quintessential kid who would be reading Atlas Shrugged,” which he defined as a preppie “in an argyle vest in an Ivy League school or something.” He was into punk rock and normal 1980s kid stuff like that. He wasn’t politically active, though he’d been following politics since he was twelve, reading the Los Angeles Times and talking about current events with his father. From an early age he felt much as he did as an adult, that “the less that government was involved in our lives the better.” Reading Atlas Shrugged appealed to those yearnings, much as a kid with a passion for social justice might be lit up by books that are soft on altruism (like just about every other book written since the dawn of time).

Precisely because the broad contours of Objectivism are self-help bromides (it's no coincidence that Rand's lover and disciple Nathaniel Branden, after his split with Rand, when on to become a formative figure in the self-esteem movement of Psychology),  Rand's notions of individualism, to say nothing of her suspicion of government, appeal to those without any particularly coherent ideology--such as the Tea Party. Weiss rightly notes that:
The overarching factor, the reason Objectivists were so prominent in the Tea Party, was that the Randers had been exposed to some degree of ideological preparation— not necessarily very much, but enough— and had a sense of direction that non-Randers in the movement didn’t have. Non-Randers are unlikely to have an entire philosophy to buttress their views, and to disseminate to their comrades. Rand distilled vague anger and unhappiness into a sense of purpose. Yes, it was extremist and drew inspiration from her early days in Russia, but it reflected values of individualism and free enterprise that were native to the Heartland.
How Rand's ideas might be best combated are demonstrated in Weiss's account of a debate between Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook and Miles Rapoport, president of progressive think tank Demos. Brook is a practiced speaker, animated and quick-witted, and Objectivism's tenets of individualism make it easy to flatter an audience. Rapoport, taking his time and shuffling notecards, is at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to presentation, but he's able to match Brook when it comes down to pointing out what Objectivists actually believe and how--objectively--wrong they are. They need to, in the Randian parlance, check their premises:

Brook trotted out again the shopworn “trader principle” Randism about people relating to each other by the “voluntary mechanism of trade. It’s win-win.” Rapoport replied that trade “connotes two equal partners. But in our society, in commerce, in the marketplace, we don’t have equal partners.” And it’s government’s role, he said, to see to it that those roles are somewhat equalized. He was low-key and stating the obvious, but it was necessary because Rand’s dogma is predicated on ignoring the obvious. Or saying, as Brook did, that one achieves income equality by giving poor people “the opportunity to rise up and make a fortune.” That brought to mind Anatole France and “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

"The lesson of the evening," Weiss concludes, "was that Objectivism can only be effectively debated by reminding the listeners that, as Rand put it, “existence exists.” Reality exists, and reality does not work in her favor most of the time."

Weiss does not make a perfect case against Randism. Too often he pulls a Godwin and peppers his analysis with direct Nazi comparisons. The similarities between Objectivism and a more general fascist mindset--a worship of beauty and power and antipathy towards liberalism, Communism, and the downtrodden--are there and are worth exploring, but Weiss doesn't do his homework here, and so he comes off sounding shrill.

Leaning heavily on Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Weiss also at times condescends to the Tea Partiers he's met, wondering aloud why they would so willingly vote against their interests. This is a failure to understand that, for one thing, a certain segment of the Tea Party considers removing government aid for poor people (read: minorities) to be very much in their interest. He also fails to consider that some of Tea Partiers of yes, the lower and middle classes, may have a genuine if misguided belief that they are indeed entirely self-sufficient and should remain so. Anybody who has tried to convince a stubborn aging parent to receive outside care will understand the difficulties of dealing with someone convinced of their own omnipotence, and it does no one any good to persist in thinking they're just stupid.

Finally, the book's final chapter is a letdown, a hyperventilating prognosis of the dystopia that would befall America should Rand's ideas come to pass. It ought to be enough to point out the ongoing fraud of the financial sector, and the reality of American life before the advent of labor laws and health and safety codes without getting into overheated rhetoric about how "The Coast Guard would stay in port while storm-tossed mariners drown lustily as they did in days of yore."

On the whole, however, Ayn Rand Nation makes an important contribution to the center-left discussion on the current right-wing resurgence and Rand's role in it. Weiss largely deals with Rand as she can only be dealt with, head-on, and his example should be followed. If we liberals have confidence in the validity of our ideas and that they will prevail, then there is nothing to fear in bringing moral vampirism into the daylight.