Cult Studies

There is a new book entitled: Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, by Wall Street reporter Gary Weiss, coming out this week. Ayn Rand created a cult of followers, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, around a philosophy of selfishness that she labeled–Objectivism. As luck would have it my brother has written an essay attempting to make sense of why Ayn Rand and her philosophy of selfishness remain so relevant today.

Take it away Wart.

I recently picked up a promotional copy of Ayn Rand excerpts from a box outside my library.  While I enjoyed the Fountainhead, I only knew of “Objectivist” philosophy secondhand.  Opening to the chapter entitled “Man’s Rights” from the Virtue of Selfishness, I read the following:

If one wishes to advocate a free society –that is, capitalism—one must realize that its indispensable foundation is the principle of individual rights. If one wishes to uphold individual rights, one must realize that capitalism is the only system that can uphold and protect them.  And if one wishes to gauge the relationship of Freedom to the goals of today’s intellectuals, one may gauge it by the fact that the concept of individual rights is evaded, distorted, perverted and seldom discussed, most conspicuously by the so-called “conservatives.”

I finished the chapter, delighted by how easy it was to spot the logical errors and the conceptual fudges.  Even so, I confess I admired her style, sharing as a I do her weakness for rhetorical finesse over inductive proof.

And as I meditated on her life experience, the sincerity of her belief and the reaction formation of her politics made sense.  Moreover, I found myself awed by her self-discipline and force of personality.  She’s not the first—or only one–to have felt these things, though she expressed herself rather better than most.   She’s entitled to prefer certainty and absolute distinctions, whatever I happen to think.

What is confusing—a source of enduring mystery to me—is how she assembled a circle of very smart people to expound, develop and celebrate her third rate philosophy, which is not, strictly speaking, philosophy at all, but polemic and persuasion masquerading (perhaps even to itself) as argument.

But perhaps a brief analytical demonstration is in order.  I’ve forgotten most of the vocabulary from my study of logic as a philosophy major, but insofar as you may not

know them either, I’ll use layperson’s terms.)

A)   In the very first sentence of the paragraph above, she presents capitalism (“that is, capitalism”) as the example of what a free society is.  Here, she blithely assumes the conclusion required to advance her argument.  (Free society –or capitalism, as she defines it, has for its “indispensable foundation” the principle of individual rights, which can only be upheld and protected by capitalism.) She’s neither subtle nor slippery. It’s just bald assertion instead of argument, with no consideration of alternatives.

B)   Who are “today’s intellectuals.” Isn’t that nebulous, catchall category a straw man?  All intellectuals alive today? The so-called conservatives?  The so-called liberals? Which ones?  They can’t all agree, or else they wouldn’t be intellectuals.

C)   Has she monitored discussions by “so-called” conservatives such that she can make this claim with any objectivity or credibility?   And if they’re only “so-called,” who calls them that?  Not her, it would seem.  Now, insofar as the identity or even existence of these putative conservatives is in doubt, how can they be said to have evaded, perverted and distorted much of anything at all?

The rest of the essay continues in a similarly logic-free manner.  It would be tedious and not any more instructive to consider her flawed or false reasoning paragraph by sorry paragraph.

And yet, I remain puzzled by and curious about (rather than disgusted by or indifferent to) Ms. Rand, a writer of popular potboilers who in her “serious” writings seems unwilling to distinguish between denotation and connotation, denies the existence of an entity called society, and asserts that America was more civilized during its first 150 years of existence (when slavery was the law of our land and women were disenfranchised!) than it is today.  Since she is not a fool, I conclude that she’s either willfully obtuse or piously vicious.  She is, undeniably, an interesting character.

But whereas her life, literature and political scribblings entertain me, the passionate intensity and impact of her acolytes, fills me with contempt.  Her arguments are not sufficient to win a high-school debate; how then did she attract eminent, well-educated persons and influence policy decisions at the national level.  Given that her circle and reputation developed before she published her opinions, she must have been more than charismatic; she must have been a mesmerer.   Or perhaps, she told people what they wanted to hear, propounded an ethical system that was neither, but which bamboozled the undiscerning or persuaded the willing to be convinced of the virtue of their vice.    Wart

Editors note–After reading some of the excerpts from Ayn Rand Nation, I think Weiss offers a pretty good explanation to why Rand has proved so durable. “…perhaps it is simply that Objectivism has no practical purpose except to promote the economic interests of the people bankrolling it…regardless of its potential to bring ruin to everyone else…”

There have been a spate of articles on Ms Rand in the last couple days. Maybe it’s something in the water. Anyway, this story points out who the real moochers are in America.

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