Thursday, September 02, 2010
Dear Uncle Gus,
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Ayn Rand?
This is a challenging question in many respects, among them that there are so many misconceptions about Ayn Rand and her ideas, and that you could use any number of criteria to qualify what you mean by "biggest." Interestingly enough, many of these misconceptions come bundled together. (There is a reason for this.) A quick look at one such "bundle" will prove very illuminating both as to what the proper criterion of "bigness" is here and what kind of misconception could qualify as "biggest."
One of the first and most memorable misconceptions about Ayn Rand I ever encountered came courtesy of a past theology instructor whose course I'd just finished. I was still relatively new to Rand and Objectivism, but he said he'd send me something to "refute" it. Fair enough: I gave him my address.
Well, he did send me something, but his promise fell short beyond that.
What I got instead was a clipping from some magazine parroting some of the more vicious things the Brandens had said about Rand, along with a note that read something to the effect of, "Give this crazy lady a wide berth in the future."
Not knowing much about Rand's personal life at the time, all I could conclude from this was that either Rand didn't live up to her own philosophy, or that what I'd read in the clipping was at least partially made up. (I have since concluded that what I'd read was practically all fabricated, distorted, or missing relevant context.) Whatever the case, the clipping still told me zero about the validity of the many arguments Rand had made that I'd considered for myself and accepted.
Hardly lost on me, though, was the purpose of this epistle, which was to make me reject Rand's ideas without giving them a full hearing. Perhaps, if I hadn't already been more familiar with Rand's own words and her approach to ideas, it might have succeeded: Perhaps I would have thought that, whatever it was Rand advocated, it led to such things. That was, fortunately, not the case.
And that -- the attempt to prevent Rand's ideas from getting a fair hearing -- is the common thread that has run through all the misconceptions, smears, and outright lies about Rand and her ideas that I've encountered ever since. You can draw your own conclusions about why so many of her ideological opponents elect to use such tactics.
So we now have what I regard as the essence of the various myths about Rand and Objectivism out there. How can I determine which is worst? First, by considering the great importance her ideas had to her life, particularly how vital they were to her central purpose as a novelist. Second, by considering my own values. I'm much more concerned with Rand's ideas than with the minutiae of her daily life, and in order to do justice to Rand anyway, I think that's the proper thing to emphasize. (This is not to deny that the two issues have some bearing on each other, however.) This, the proper criterion for "bigness" is: Which myth is the most potentially effective at snuffing out what Ayn Rand had to say?
This last is what I thought would be the difficult part of your question until I sat down and attempted to reply to it. However, the answer now leaps out at me, as I think about all the mud I've seen slung at Objectivism (and at Ayn Rand by proxy) over the past twenty-odd years. Interestingly, the answer comes from elsewhere than open opponents of Rand.
With every misconception save one, an honest person will, with some effort to learn the truth, easily be able to debunk any given misconception by the simple expedient of consulting Rand's own words. That one exception is the misconception that Objectivism is an "open system," i.e., that it is anything instead of or in addition to the philosophy she explicitly described during her life. Once someone accepts ideas other than Rand's (or those from others that she noted were part of her philosophy) as "Objectivism," then Rand becomes unable to speak for herself because now, people can basically get away with putting words into her mouth.
Next to that misconception, the others don't look anywhere near as menacing to me.
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Today: (1) Added a clarification. (2) Minor edits.