Keeping the Secret

Monday, March 02, 2009

A morning appointment and a flight -- if the snowstorm in Boston doesn't deliver knockout punches to them -- necessitate a very short post this morning. I expect to be posting again tomorrow morning, but from where, Boston again or Houston, I am unsure....


Some time this weekend, on a stop by the Houston Chronicle, I was surprised to see front-page links to two of its readers' blogs, highlighted by the question that Obama is striving mightily to make everyone ask, "Who is John Galt?"

Luckily, the question has a way of piquing the curiosity of the independent-minded readers Ayn Rand sought for her audience. I say this, because the two posts promoted by the Houston paper misrepresented Ayn Rand's philosophy, as well as the work of the Ayn Rand Institute.

The first post to receive a link was by a self-described "big-time admirer of Rand," who shows the depths of his admiration for Rand and his familiarity with her greatest novel, Atlas Shrugged, with the following unfounded criticism:
[H]er work ignores some of the realities of life, the most poignant being children and the love, attention, and costs they bring with them. Pure individualists may disregard such concerns but for most of us they are the reality of why we work.
First of all, the idea that neglecting one's children is an example of "pure individualism" is a very common smear against egoism by altruists. Second, the following excerpt from Atlas Shrugged shows that, while it was not a major theme of her work, Ayn Rand did not "ignore" this "reality of life". This is from a conversation between a young mother, who has gone on strike and taken refuge in Galt's Gulch, and the heroine of the novel, Dagny Taggart.
"They [her sons --ed] represent my particular career, Miss Taggart," said the young mother in answer to her comment, wrapping a loaf of fresh bread and smiling at her across the counter. "They're the profession I've chosen to practice, which, in spite of all the guff about motherhood, one can't practice successfully in the outer world. I believe you've met my husband, he's the teacher of economics who works as linesman for Dick McNamara. You know, of course, that there can be no collective commitments in this valley and that families or relatives are not allowed to come here, unless each person takes the striker's oath by his own independent conviction. I came here, not merely for the sake of my husband's profession, but for the sake of my own. I came here in order to bring up my sons as human beings. I would not surrender them to the educational systems devised to stunt a child's brain, to convince him that reason is impotent, that existence is an irrational chaos with which he's unable to deal, and thus reduce him to a state of chronic terror. You marvel at the difference between my children and those outside, Miss Taggart? Yet the cause is so simple. The cause is that here, in Galt's Gulch, there's no person who would not consider it monstrous ever to confront a child with the slightest suggestion of the irrational." [bold added] (Atlas Shrugged, p. 724)
Furthermore, Rand frequently commented on education in her nonfiction. So much for the idea that egoists think raising children can be left to the wolves.

The second post, which is a reaction to the first, if I recall correctly, is by a liberal Christian who once flirted with Objectivism. He accuses the Objectivist movement in general of being dogmatic and the Ayn Rand Institute in particular of being, "more interested in remaining pure and true to Ayn Rand herself than anything else". ARI, as one might expect, is certainly in the business of promoting Ayn Rand's ideas. The notion that this consists of idle navel-gazing or incessant purges can quickly be debunked by a short visit to its web site.

Not having attended his university and hearing just his side of the story, I cannot speak to his own campus club experiences, but I was involved in a different campus club. We never forbade questions of ARI speakers at our events, although, since the purpose of our club, according to its constitution, was to advance the ideas of Ayn Rand, we did not promote individuals like David Kelley and Nathaniel Branden, who claim to represent her ideas when, in fact, they have major differences with her.

The idea that one can be either an unthinking dogmatist or have a wide-open, uncritical, mind has very wide currency in our culture, and is partially rooted in the reputation (deserved by many philosophies) that philosophy is not actual knowledge. I would hope that the second writer would have no problem with, say an association of astronomers, repudiating a member who denies the law of gravity or who claims despite all evidence that the earth is at the center of the universe.

Someone who accepted a proper philosophy, discovered by reason from the facts of reality, would similarly and properly regard David Kelley and Nathaniel Branden as cranks. (To be fair, although this error is as bad as denying gravity, it is not quite so obvious. Kelley and Branden have taken in many perfectly intelligent adults over the span of their careers.)

Furthermore, the insistence that someone who says he is an Objectivist actually agree with Ayn Rand is hardly the black mark of dogmatism many claim. Ayn Rand's philosophy is, itself, an Aristotelian one -- meaning it is derived from Aristotle's -- but it is not Aristotelianism. Rand regarded Aristotle as a hero, but she had major differences with him, and she was always clear about them. Either you are a proponent for a particular philosophy or you are not. If you like some aspects of Objectivism, but not others, then you my be sympathetic to Objectivism, but you are not, in fact, an Objectivist. Making a non-contradictory identification of fact of reality is an example of using one's mind properly. Mere dogmatism -- the acceptance of an idea regardless of the facts of reality -- is its opposite.

I have admired the work of Ayn Rand for over twenty years, but my introduction to it came in much the same way the Houston Chronicle may have arranged it for its readers -- from an opponent. I'll paraphrase one of the authors and advise the reader to evaluate Objectivism on his own terms, but with one caveat. Let Ayn Rand speak for herself. She does a much better job than anyone who tries to do it for her.

Otherwise, you may never really know the answer to the question, "Who is John Galt?"

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

I keep on seeing the claim that Objectivism is somehow anti-children pop up with surprising regularity, considering how lame it is. Is there some original source to this accusation that other critics are cribbing from?

Gus Van Horn said...

Not as far as I know. I think it's just a standard slam against selfishness generally.

It does bring to mind Ayn Rand's quip about the Ayn Rand Lexicon to the effect that someone could look up "baby" and see that she doesn't advocate eating them for breakfast!

Joe said...

Is there some original source to this accusation...?

Who else but the Conservatives: here's the original National Review review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, resurrected 50 years later on their web site.

Besides accusing AR of being anti children, Chambers characterizes the strike as a dictatorship of elites.

Its pretty clear from this review that the writer and his editor WF Buckley are either - if they haven't read the book - dishonest or - if they have read the book - morons and/or liars (since these two accusations are clearly contradicted in the book). Probably both.

Furthermore, Rand frequently commented on education in her nonfiction.

Especially her essay “The Comprachicos”, which has to be one of the most impassioned defense of children anywhere.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, Joe, for reminding me of the Whittaker Chambers "review", and for highlighting "The Comprachicos." That is one of my favorites.

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks for submitting this post to the carnival, Gus. It really struck a chord with me. Given my current occupation, it's pretty amusing to me that so many people are still under the impression that Ayn Rand and/or Objectivists are somehow anti-child!

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome!

And maybe the next time that comes up, I should refer people to your blog, now that I think of it.