I am your typical liberal — skeptical, cynical, a little grossed out by Columbus Day. Maybe I’m a little to the left of most liberals, because I’m young and because I owe credit card companies a lot of money. All the same, I have to admit to some devotion to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, at least to that philosophy presented at the Ayn Rand Institute home page (www.aynrand.org).
The site greets you with this statement, from the appendix to Atlas Shrugged: “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.” In fairness to Rand, her relentless shilling for postwar American politics and laissez-faire capitalism resulted from a closer brush with Communism than most of her critics ever had: she was born in St. Petersburg in 1905, and her family surrendered all of their possessions to the Bolsheviks. It’s not Rand’s idealization of machismo and corporate tactics that appeal to me (though I must say that the best testament to the androgyny of Rand’s credo is Rand herself, an ambitious, calculating, and very successful intellectual), it’s her unwavering Objectivism, her consistent dedication to a philosophy other than religion that I admire. An atheist such as me, who lacks an alternative philosophical constancy, is often perceived as a flake, sometimes a coward. I’m certainly not ashamed by my atheism, but I am cowed by Rand’s immutable devotion to terrestrialism. Rand, this site tells us, once met a challenge to describe Objectivism while standing on one foot. Her answer: Metaphysics is Objective Reality; Epistemology is Reason; Ethics is Self-Interest; Politics is Capitalism. She then translated these abstract slogans into familiar language. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” “Man is an end in himself.” “Give me liberty or give me death.”
The most seductive of Rand’s precepts, to my mind, are those that emphasize the supremacy of physiological immediacy and acceptance of the limits of the mind. Earth is our home, a rock is a rock, gravity is the winner (I cribbed this one from Jay Farrar, once of Uncle Tupelo), etc. None of this changes the fact, however, that the Ayn Rand Institute home page is one of the most offensive and dangerous documents I have ever seen. Its ideology is absolutely bald and shameless. And I use the term ideology here in its most simple sense, as a set of beliefs that cast a wide net and that are adhered to without question, regardless of whether they are true or false.
What makes the site’s presentation of Rand’s philosophy so offensive is that it refuses to even tip its hat to ideology. “A is A,” the site preaches, “facts are facts,” what’s true “exists independent of any observer’s knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires, or fears.” Is that a fact? I doubt it. For good or ill, one thing we know for sure is is that people of different economic backgrounds, from different regions, invent very different realities for themselves in order to justify how they live. Gravity may
weigh us down, but reality is manufactured out of assumptions, out of flights of fancy powered by economics, race, and gender. How do I know this is true? Because my Marxist college professor told me so. Hey, a fact’s a fact.
What makes this site dangerous is how it peddles its ideology to kids with the shamelessness of a confectioner. All kinds of links here are geared toward college campuses, high school debate clubs, and student groups. Most vulgar, though, are the Institute’s student-essay contests. There are three separate contests scheduled for 2000, each organized around a different Ayn Rand novel. One is for graduate and undergraduate business (surprise!) students; it challenges contestants to answer the following question about Atlas Shrugged: Using the events in the novel, explain the moral and philosophical meaning of the following quote: “So you think that money is the root of all evil?... Have you ever asked what is the root of money?” Eleventh and twelfth graders get to compete for $10,000, the winner being the one who can best explain four quotes from The Fountainhead, including:
(a) Keating: “How do you always manage to decide?”
Roark: “How can you let others decide for you?”
(b) Roark: “To say ‘I love you,’ one must know first how to say ‘I.’ ”
(c) Roark: “I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life.”
If ninth and tenth graders can adhere to all the rules for submission (“To avoid disqualification, a stapled cover sheet MUST include...”), they too can compete. A $1000 prize waits for the best explanation of this line from Anthem: “I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them.”
Cotton candy, I say. Enough puffery to make you sick. I take it all back; Ayn Rand’s a loser. How’s that for consistency?