Tuesday, April 26, 2011

KEEPING THE BIG PICTURE WHEN CONFRONTED WITH 'ATLAS SHRUGGED'

"Sweep aside those hatred-eaten mystics, who pose as friends of humanity and preach that the highest virtue man can practice is to hold his own life as of no value."
- John Galt

"The awkward age is the worst time to [discover] Ayn Rand ... I stopped walking and started striding, taking care to turn my flat feet inward so I would look like an egoist instead of a duck. I kept my eyes locked straight ahead, causing myself a number of collisions and falls. I forced my jaw into a rational clamp, which broke the rubber bands on my braces and made me dribble down my front. In the name of individualism I quit Le Cercle Français. I longed to quit organizations right and left, but unfortunately, French Club was the only one I had ever joined. I gave some thought to ending my friendships, but having only two, it did not seem worthwhile. The architect who had designed Central [High School] was dead, so I could not help him blow up the school, and there was no way to locate the mad bomber, who in any case was probably not an idealist in the Howard Roark mold."
- Florence King (on first reading Ayn Rand in the Ninth Grade)

One of the greatest arguments for completely ignoring politics is the currently low IQ levels of most of the participants in the political public square. In a mass-media obsessed age, it's fairly obvious that short attention spans and less than 15-second sound-bites are not conducive to productive discourse. Add to this the divisiveness and violently partisan passions that are pitted against each other (often in talk shows by political talking hacks), and any sense of thought, decency or reflection long ago had its feet unceremoniously cemented into concrete blocks and its person rudely tossed in the sea.

My point of view is mainline conservative. But the problem with most conservatives today is that one's conservatism is currently defined by issues learned at kindergarten level. We're talking shallow. Shallow, not even as in kiddie pool levels, but more along the lines of the depth of a rain puddle. In today's politics, the word "conservative" designates a pro-free market, anti-abortion, pro-firearms, anti-tax raising, pro-war viewpoint, with an increasingly simplistic European phobia thrown in for good measure. Likewise, the word "liberal" designates an anti-capitalist, pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-government spending, anti-war viewpoint, with increasingly caricatured French envy. However, peanut gallery applause for tax cuts or raises ought not to be the same as cheering for the home team. At least, it didn't used to be.

It is high time we remembered the bigger picture. Conservatism is a political philosophy with a rich and diverse literary and intellectual tradition. Our roots have historically powerful foundations. Our roots ought to provoke self-education in the exploration into moral & political truths endeavored by the intellects of Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, George Buchanan, John Locke, Samuel Rutherford, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, Charles de Montesquieu and Sir William Blackstone. They include an understanding of the term "classical liberal." They include a fondness for the nuances of Edmund Burke's speeches before the British Parliament in the late 1700s, including his principled distinction between the "trustee" and the "delegate" models of representation. They encompass an understanding of how John Adams' arguments in a Boston courtroom were philosophically opposed to Thomas Paine's pamphleteering (even if both were advancing the same end result). They involve an ability to discern the principle intellectual differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalist/Jeffersonians, along with the appreciation for why men like James Madison, Gouverneur Morris and Benjamin Franklin got a few more things right than men like James Patterson, George Clinton or Luther Martin. They recognize the philosophical reasons why Alexander Hamilton's predictions about the French Revolution turned out to be more accurate than Thomas Jefferson's did.

And all that hasn't even taken us out of the 1700s yet. Intelligent conservatism seeks to understand the genius of John Marshall and Joseph Story, cultivates an appreciation for the downright mulishness of President Jackson when he was suddenly stuck with Senator John C. Calhoun as a dinner guest, prefers the rhetoric of Senator Webster to that of Senator Hayne, tosses books about Abraham Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo in the same garbage can as books by C.A. Tripp, and can point out the half-truths embedded in the military histories written by Douglas Southall Freeman - in which honest historians, like Shelby Foote for example, refuse to indulge themselves.

The political conservative philosophical tradition revels in the energy of Teddy Roosevelt, enjoys the quiet confidence of Henry Cabot Lodge, willingly explains how Calvin Coolidge understood economics better than Franklin Roosevelt did, casually dismisses the pretenses for academic lecturing that Charles A. Beard foisted upon an unwitting public, differentiates between the triumphs and errors of both Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower, finds the animadversions of Albert Jay Nock lovable, exults in the poetry of Randall Jarrell & Gerard Manley Hopkins, and delights in the English prose of both Jonathan Swift & Dr. Samuel Johnson AND John Dos Passos & Mark Helprin.

It's not that there is a single creed you have to hold to. There are many different sorts of conservatives out there. But every single one of these guys in our tradition held particular truths in common. Thus, the word "conservative" in modern times does have meaning. Conservatives believe in a set of universal moral truths. And these truths are of a transcendent origin (like the natural inalienable rights of man, for one example). Claiming that "We hold these truths to be self-evident" leads to a few logical consequences. On the one hand, Liberalism just isn't as limited when it comes to objective standards for right and wrong. On the other, Libertarianism doesn't even demand that one admits to any particular origin of "inalienable rights." It's actually conservatism that is most strict by definition - and it is this political philosophy which originates from "natural law" theory, discussed by thinkers as early as Moses and Cicero.

So why go into the classical and historical origins of modern political conservatism like this? Because, with the film, Atlas Shrugged, in theaters right now, too many conservatives are settling for the ideas of a writer who does not agree with our intellectual tradition. Objectivism is not conservative any more than libertarianism is conservative. Now, why should you care? If you are a conservative, you should care because the ideas of Ayn Rand are fundamentally inconsistent with your political philosophy. If you want to be able to articulate and advance your political ideas successfully, then you can't join them with opposing ideas that deny the basic fundamentals of what you claim to hold to. I'm not asking you to not ever read Rand or see the film. But I am claiming that we ought to stop promoting this film and ought to cease and desist from associating ourselves in public with the Objectivist thought. It's inherently destructive to our reputation.

While I've listed some of the intellectual and historical foundations for conservative philosophy here, I haven't yet reached the most powerful conservative minds in our own lifetimes. In the 1950s, conservatism was in bad shape. Just coming out out of the New Deal years, the old guard conservatives were represented by a well-intentioned but waffling leadership who were incapable of elementary persuasive articulation of their position. Then, once upon a time, along came a group of brilliant thinkers and writers who were sick and tired of all the compromise and defeat - Willmoore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Frank S. Meyer, William A. Rusher, and, most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. No group of men had better articulated objections to the consequences of FDR's New Deal, and later to Johnson's "Great Society", until they arrived on the scene.

In 1951, a young Buckley published his first book, God and Man at Yale , denouncing Yale's sudden advancement of socialism and moral relativism. In 1953, Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind , tracing the intellectual foundations of modern conservatism back to Edmund Burke. Then, in 1955, Buckley got together with Kirk, Kendall, Meyer, Burnham and Chambers to start the first "conservative" magazine in the United States. His introduction to the magazine is now famous:

"Let’s Face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did National Review not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."

It took about 30 years of persuasion and debate, but then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President.



Their heirs at the modern day National Review - M. Stanton Evans, Richard Brookhiser, John Derbyshire, Dinesh D'Souza, Victor Davis Hanson, Kathryn Jean Lopez, Rich Lowry, and John O'Sullivan - still provide some of the best and brightest thought available for conservative interaction within the public square. They are the direct opposite of the shrillness and inanity that you will find with Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Rielly, or Michael Savage (all of whom seem to be mindlessly parroting each other's songs and praises for Atlas Shrugged).

For those of us aware of history, the book, Atlas Shrugged , isn't just famous for being Ayn Rand's best-seller, it's also famous for being the last straw with the smarter conservatives of her day. It was precisely by her publishing this novel in 1957 that made conservatives reject Ayn Rand's philosophy, ultimately kicking her outside of conservatism itself. William F. Buckley, writing in 1963, in his essay entitled Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism , sums up what happened:

In 1957, Whittaker Chambers reviewed Atlas Shrugged, the novel by Miss Ayn Rand wherein she explicates the philosophy of "objectivism," which is what she has chosen to call her creed ... Chambers did in fact read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement. He did so by pointing out that her philosophy is in fact another kind of materialism, not the dialectical materialism of Marx, but the materialism of technocracy, of the relentless self-server, who lives for himself and for absolutely no one else, whose concern for others is explainable merely as an intellectualized recognition of the relationship between helping others and helping oneself. Religion is the first enemy of the objectivist, and after religion, the state - respectively, "the mysticism of the mind" and "the mysticism of the muscle." "Randian Man," wrote Chambers, "like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world."

Her exclusion from the conservative community was, I am sure, in part the result of her dessicated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral; but also there is the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is in itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg, or Savonarola - or Ayn Rand. Chambers knew that specific ideologies come and go, but that rhetorical totalism is always in the air, searching for the lightning rod of the ideologue-on-the-make; and so he said things about Miss Rand's tone of voice which, I would hazard a guess, were it the tone of anyone else's voice, would tend to make it, eo ipso, unacceptable for the conservative ...

[Chambers wrote] - "... the book [Atlas Shrugged's] dictatorial tone ... is its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. It's shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal ... resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber - go!' The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too, in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture ... At first we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house."

As if according to a script, Miss Rand's followers jumped National Review and Chambers in language that crossed the i's and dotted the t's of Mr. Chambers' point. (It is not fair to hold the leader responsible for the excesses of the disciples, but this demonstration by Miss Rand's followers - never repudiated by Miss Rand - suggested that her own intolerance is easily communicable to other Objectivists.) ... What the experience proved, it seems to me, beyond the inacceptability of Miss Rand's ideas and rhetoric, is that no conservative cosmology whose every star and planet is given in a master book of co-ordinates is very likely to sweep American conservatives off their feet. They are enough conservative, and anti-ideological, to resist totally closed systems, those systems that do not provide for deep and continuing mysteries. They may be pro-ideology enough to resist such asseverations as that conservatism is merely "an attitude of mind." But I predict on the basis of a long association with American conservatives that there isn't anybody around scribbling into his sacred book a series of all-fulfilling formulae which will serve the conservatives as an Apostles' Creed. Miss Rand tried it, and because she tried it she compounded the failure of her ideas. She will have to go down as an Objectivist; my guess is she will go down as an entertaining novelist.


For Chambers' entire 1957 book review, see Big Sister Is Watching You.

Even Buckley's guess there changed after he finally read the book for himself.



Most interesting is one of the reasons Buckley explained why Ayn Rand was out was because of her systematically "closed" philosophy. While Conservatism has a rich historical tradition, it is still quite diverse - and only requires that one believe in a few basic truths about natural law. Rand would allow for no dissent whatsoever. One the dangers of being an Objectivist or Rand-follower usually included the threat of suddenly becoming an "unofficial" Objectivist or ex-Rand-follower (she had a large number of fallings out with her followers, the most famous of which were with Nathaniel & Barbara Branden, then later with Murray Rothbard, and later with Alan Greenspan).

Both generous and critical, years later Buckley wrote in "Ayn Rand, RIP" on March 10, 1982:

... There were a few who, like Chambers, caught on early. Atlas Shrugged was published back before the law of the Obligatory Sex Scene was passed by both Houses of Congress and all fifty state legislatures, so that the volume was considered rather risque, in its day. Russell Kirk, challenged to account for Miss Rand’s success if indeed she was merely an exiguous philosophic figure, replied, "Oh, they read her books for the fornicating bits." Unkind. And only partly true.

The Fountainhead, read in a certain way, is a profound assertion of the integrity of art. What did Miss Rand in was her anxiety to theologize her beliefs. She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that - but no, she had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest is good and noble. She risked, in fact, giving to capitalism that bad name that its enemies have done so well in giving it; and that is a pity ...


It is getting into basic right and wrong that Rand gets into trouble. What is right is whatever serves an entrepreneur's self-interests. What is wrong is whatever goes against an entrepreneur's self-interests. Right and wrong are simply whatever serve the interests of one of Rand's rational "prime movers." In The Virtue of Selfishness , she writes:

I quote from Galt’s speech: "Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice — and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man — by choice; he has to hold his life as a value — by choice; he has to learn to sustain it — by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues — by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality."

The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil - is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.


If you're not rational according to Rand's standards, then you cannot survive as a man. In her view, you're just a suicidal animal. Man chooses his own moral values. In other words, your moral values are determined by your own self-interests, depending on where you live, what you want, etc. And it is true, in a Godless world, everyone does choose their own right and wrong. She continues:

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man — in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.

You choose the moral values that are best for you, not anyone else. Rand would probably say that rational moral values are better for other people than irrational moral values, but that's just a nice incidental consequence to putting yourself first.

From For the New Intellectual -

If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a "moral commandment" is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments. My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists — and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason — Purpose — Self-esteem.

From Philosophy: Who Needs It? -

In spite of all their irrationalities, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and evasions, the majority of men will not act, in major issues, without a sense of being morally right and will not oppose the morality they have accepted. They will break it, they will cheat on it, but they will not oppose it; and when they break it, they take the blame on themselves. The power of morality is the greatest of all intellectual powers — and mankind’s tragedy lies in the fact that the vicious moral code men have accepted destroys them by means of the best within them.

I fully admit my own bias here. I've been raised to appreciate well-written English prose, and this is not it. One final example from Atlas Shrugged:

Francisco stopped, looked at her and slapped her face.
What she felt was contained in a single instant, whilst the ground rocked under her feet, in a single blast of emotion within her. She knew that she would have killed any other person who had struck her; she felt the violent fury which would have given her the strength for it - and as violent a pleasure, that Francisco had done it. She felt pleasure from the hot, dull pain in her cheek and from the taste of blood in the corner of her mouth. She felt pleasure in what she suddenly grasped about him, about herself and his motive.
She braced her feet to stop the dizziness, she held her head straight and stood facing him in the consciousness of a new power, feeling herself his equal for the first time, looking at him with a mocking smile of triumph ...


Guh. This is not my idea of enjoyable reading. Yeah, yeah, so she has sex with him later, big whoop. Maybe this is just me, but I can only read about Dagny Taggart's "consciousness of power," her "cutting across the room" with "masculine, straight-line abruptness", on how "her steps sounded purposeful", or how she felt a new "blast of emotion", or of "the purposeful motion down the straight line of a single track to a chosen goal" for so long. I don't know if anyone has done a word count about how many times the word "purposeful" or the phrase "straight line" appears in 'Atlas Shrugged', but I'm guessing Rand kept repeating herself like this ... on purpose?

Aesthetics aside, Rand's own personal brand of morality is fully exhibited in Atlas Shrugged .

Jason Lee Steorts writes:

It’s about two-thirds through, in a chapter called "The Moratorium on Brains," than which I reread no farther. (Our president seems to have inspired — which is not quite the word — half the country to read Miss Rand, and I wanted to remind myself what she was teaching them.) A train is carrying 300 passengers through the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco. America is falling altogether to pieces, its citizens starving to death, because the prime movers — Rand’s term for the productive men and women on whom economic creation and therefore life-or-death depend — have called a strike. They are hanging out in a mountain valley that their leader, Mr. John Galt, has cleverly hidden from the world by means of refractor-ray shield.

The world scarcely has diesel locomotives. When the one attached to that train breaks down, the only replacements are coal-burning, which is a problem, because the train is about to pass through an eight-mile tunnel that is not properly ventilated for locomotives of this type. It happens that an important looter — Rand’s term for the half-wits running and ruining the country — is on the train and has strong feelings about getting to San Francisco. His name is Kip Chalmers. "It’s not my problem to figure out how you get the train through the tunnel, that’s for you to figure out!" Kip Chalmers screams at a station agent. "But if you don’t get me an engine and don’t start that train, you can kiss good-bye to your jobs, your work permits and this whole goddamn railroad!" ... And so the station officials, knowing that the loss of their jobs means the loss of their lives, call in a coal engine, procure a drunken engineer, and condemn every passenger on the train to death by asphyxiation.

But that isn’t why I stopped reading. I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.

"It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet [that’s the train] were not guilty [note that word] or responsible for the thing that happened to them ... The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence ... The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, 'I don’t care, it’s only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children.' ... These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas."


Cathy Young, in a well written piece for the March 2005 issue of Reason Magazine, notes:

Rand's detractors often brand her a fascist. She is not, of course; but does her work have overtones of a totalitarian or dictatorial mentality? This charge irks even ambivalent Rand admirers, such as Nathaniel Branden, who fully recognize the dogmatism and intolerance in the Objectivist movement. They point out that Rand decisively rejects the use of force except in self-defense. True; but as Branden has observed on the topic of emotional repression, it would be wise to pay attention not just to what Rand says but to what she does - in this case, in her novels. Near the end of 'Atlas Shrugged', when the heroes go to rescue John Galt from the baddies, female railroad magnate Dagny Taggart calmly and quite unnecessarily shoots a guard who can't decide whether to let her in or not. The man, you see, "wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness" - obviously a capital crime.

Remember, not acting as rationally as Rand thinks you should act, you become something less than a man. Or, in the heroine Dagny Taggart's eyes, something less than an animal (since Rand makes sure to point out in this scene that Dagny wouldn't shoot an animal). Some people say a work of literature can be judged on two levels, first for its ideas, and second for it's aesthetic quality. I would suggest that the two are a great influence on each other. Rand's ponderous ideas weigh down her story and deaden her characters (no matter how many times she writes about how alive, exulting and powerful they feel unlike all the "looters"). Steorts distinguishes between the two, but still asks for a work that can inspire. But similar to others, he can find no inspiration from Atlas Shrugged :

There is so much to be said against Rand as an artist. There is the inept dialogue — characters begin a great many sentences by shouting each other’s names or saying "You know"; the heroes speak, every one of them, in exactly the same voice; the averagely intelligent advance the plot by blurting out their secrets. There is the Girl Scout banality of Atlas Shrugged’s heroine, who seems to have escaped from the young-adult section. There is the preposterous omnicompetence of the heroes, equally at home on the Harvard faculty or in a Vin Diesel movie, and the endless gushing about their exalted feelings, Rand’s attempt to steal with treacle what she has not earned with character development. There is that editorial discipline which gave us John Galt’s speech. I don’t care. I don’t require of my artists that they be perfect craftsmen; I require that they inspire me. What is sad to me about Rand is that she could, but that the creator of Gail Wynand could create only one; that she could no longer imagine him when she looked out at mankind; that what she showed us instead was her need to reassure herself, in terms frankly delusional, of her superiority to it.

Richard Reinsch, author of a Whittaker Chambers biography, wrote:

Like Rand, Karl Marx desired for man to live in atomistic paradise free from the pains of Jerusalem and Athens. Marxists could never get beyond the means, however. For Rand, Man delivers himself through his labor and intellect from the burden of his own nature. This explains the centrality of the market to Rand. The market is not merely a process through which the variegated interests and desires of man can be peacefully directed; rather, the market solves man’s problem in full. He can become the Nietzschean superman Chambers intuitively described in the review. One becomes the ideal man, as articulated by Rand, by being able to extricate one’s self from the bonds and needs of others, and also from one’s own body. Her total vision lurks here in the replacement of love, sacrifice, and humility with a rational and atomistic egoism. In Atlas Shrugged, sex is no longer the interplay of love and gift but the release of biological desires with those similarly situated on the sexual-marketability scale. There are no children.

... Chambers understood the political broadly and saw it as inherently conditioned by metaphysics. We may think heaven and hell are not political concepts, but for Chambers, one’s thoughts on these matters intervened in the political realm in numerous ways. While Rand may not have thought it possible to support tyranny, the type of man she defined inexorably leads to the rise of a master class. Man defined purely atomistically, unable to know love of God and man, slowly begins to organize the world against man. He is removed from the true source of his being. For Chambers, this was the unpardonable sin of the 20th century and its bleak truth.


There is something dangerous about embracing a total philosophy made completely by one single person. Rand applied her philosophy personally in a number of strange and hurtful ways to those around her, but to her credit, it could be said she still applied her philosophy consistently. But her philosophy is not politically conservative, and whatever lessons her ponderous tale may have against the dangers of tyrannical government - they are available elsewhere, without all the actually morally abhorrent Objectivist baggage that goes along with Rand.

Peter Wehner writes:

... Yet there are some strands within conservatism that still veer toward Rand and her views of government ("The government should be concerned only with those issues which involve the use of force," she argued. "This means: the police, the armed services, and the law courts to settle disputes among men. Nothing else."), and many conservatives identify with her novelistic hero John Galt, who declared, "I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

But this attitude has very little to do with authentic conservatism, at least the kind embodied by Edmund Burke, Adam Smith (chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow), and James Madison, to name just a few. What Rand was peddling is a brittle, arid, mean, and ultimately hollow philosophy. No society could thrive if its tenets were taken seriously and widely accepted. Ayn Rand may have been an interesting figure and a good (if extremely long-winded) novelist; but her views were pernicious, the antithesis of a humane and proper worldview. And conservatives should say so.


So, why is Atlas Shrugged, the book or the film, worth recommending to anyone at all? It isn't. It's not worth giving the free market, as Buckley pointed out, that bad name - the brand of a crass and selfish materialism - in the public eye. It hurts and detracts from a proper conservative articulation for the moral uprightness of free market principles.

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