A Strangely Revealing Screed

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Over at Ego, Martin Lindeskog asks, "How will you celebrate Ayn Rand's birthday?" Well, I've been too busy lately to ponder the question, but I know I won't be reading National Review. While he was at Men's News Daily reading this nice retrospective, I was slumming at Arts & Letters Daily, where I found this silly screed. Well, a trip into the intellectual ghetto can occasionally yield useful knowledge, and despite the best efforts of its author, this was just such visit to the seamy side of town.

I was about to say that the title says it all, but the title, in fact, does more than just that. The title explains the whole, consistently vicious editorial approach that publication has taken towards Ayn Rand from the start. Written by a contributing online editor whose name, Andrew Stuttaford, appropriately evokes some paunchy, pasty-faced lesser villain from -- oh, an Ayn Rand novel -- the article is more remarkable for what it shows us about its parent publication than about anything it has to say on its ostensible subject matter.

"A Strangely Important Figure." It is the adverb in the title which is important, for it suggests at the same time that it is odd for Rand to have achieved prominence, that she is an oddball, and that Rand's nonconformity somehow makes it implausible that she is important at all. That is basically the whole point of the article and of everything I have ever seen about Rand in National Review. Ayn Rand once compared National Review unfavorably to Christian Science Monitor because the latter admits that it is a Christian publication rather than posing as a secular one. Let's briefly see how the other half lives, and why it does so, shall we?

Of a woman whose fiction portrayed heroism as something achievable by man, and whose life often echoed the novels, Stuttaford can only roll his eyes and make snide comments (though I doubt he can do both at the same time).

Even the smaller details of Rand's life come with the sort of epic implausibility found in - oh, an Ayn Rand novel. On her first day of looking for work in Hollywood, who gives her a lift in his car? Cecil B. DeMille. Of course he does. Frank Lloyd Wright designs a house for her. Years later, when she's famous, the sage of selfishness, ensconced in her Murray Hill eyrie, a young fellow by the name of Alan Greenspan becomes a member of the slightly creepy set that sits at the great woman's feet. Apparently he went on to achieve some prominence in later life.

"Of course he does," is all Stuttaford can think to say about the fact that Rand got a lift from Cecil B. DeMille. This isn't a damned cliche! It really happened, and I think it's pretty neat that it did. Stuttaford is then confronted by the fact, obviously unpleasant to him, that a small group of people regularly met with Ayn Rand after she became famous to discuss philosophy. Frat boy makes the following scintillating observations: (1) Rand was (twitter) "the sage of selfishness." (2) Those people sure were creepy. Call me crazy, but here's what I find creepy: people who meet regularly "at the feet" of some cleric to take whatever he says on faith, and then practice ritual cannibalism. Oh! But I'm wrong because more people do the latter.

But Stuttaford isn't finished illustrating the sound of silence with his intellectual report. He has to include the all-important affair with Nathaniel Branden -- just like all the other Ayn Rand detractors out there!

Most notably, Rand had an affair with her chosen intellectual heir, Nathaniel Brandon. While both Rand's husband and the wife of the intellectual heir agreed (sort of) to this arrangement, it added further emotional complications to what was, given Rand's prominence, a surprisingly hermetic, claustrophobic little world, one best described in "The Passion of Ayn Rand" ... written by, yes, the intellectual heir's ex-wife.

First, note that Stuttaford seems to give great credence to a book about Rand by someone who arguably might have an axe to grind. Second, note an interesting parallel here. I was no fan of Bill Clinton, but I was even less of a fan of how certain conservatives would attack him. They'd dwell on his extramarital affairs and ignore the many legitimate ideological reasons to attack him . With Ayn Rand, they do whatever they can to make the affair with Branden sound like a tawdry mess. But why do they do this? If they disagree with someone, why do they head straight for the bedroom when they should proceed, instead, to the drawing room? Because this breed of conservatives is dismissive of ideas as such. They had nothing substantive to say the first time they encountered Ayn Rand and they have nothing substantive to say now. This is probably why they recently, nearly half a century after first publishing it, republished online a famously inaccurate review of Atlas Shrugged (which Robert Tracinski blogs here). The only thing that is different now is that they admit it's inaccurate, for which I suspect we can thank Tracinski.

But the accusation by Whittaker Chambers in National Review that there was a whiff of the gas chamber about her writings is wrong. Rand lived in an era of stark ideological choices; to argue in muted, reasonable tones was to lose the debate. As a graduate of Lenin's Russia, she knew that the stakes were high, and how effective good propaganda could be.

But note the double smear, which reminds, perversely, of how liberals will say "Bush is stupid" and "Bush is a clever politician" out of different sides of their mouths. Here, Stuttaford accuses Rand of making a "stark ideological choice" and, presumably, of arguing her points too stridently. But in the very next line, he dismisses her writings as "propaganda!" (Or are arguments as such "propaganda"?) Again, we see evidence, and pretty stark evidence at that, of the intellectual bankruptcy at National Review. Being "reasonable" means not taking a stand, and taking a stand is done only for the purpose of manipulating people anyway. Ideas in and of themselves are not really important. They are only tools for manipulating people.

Given this view of ideas, perhaps we should wonder how and why National Review intends to manipulate us, its readers. For just one example: Why would presumably pro-capitalist conservatives not welcome someone who offers cogent arguments for capitalism? The article answers that question for us.

In a restless age that believed in the Big Answer, neither historical tradition nor utilitarian notions of efficiency would suffice. Ayn Rand gave Americans that case, perhaps not the best case, but a case, and she knew how to sell it.

"Tradition?" There's more precedent for feudalism than capitalism in tradition. "Utilitarianism?" Who decides what the "greater good" is and whose necks will get yoked or cut for it? Neither of these supposed justifications for capitalism will lead to capitalism if put into practice. The National Review is, in fact, no friend of capitalism. This is precisely why they tar Ayn Rand by first mocking her for being "selfish" and then by speaking of the "moral case for capitalism" dismissively, as a mere "appetite" among those silly, fickle Americans consumers of Rand's time.

So I charge that National Review attacks Ayn Rand as it does because the editorial staff are anticapitalists who view ideas dismissively as just a way to herd people around. Want an example? Mr. Stuttaford kindly provides us with one in his parting shot:

The last image in Mr. Britting's biography is of an exultant Rand speaking at a conference in New Orleans in 1981, the final public appearance of this magnificent, brilliant oddball. Her hosts tried to lure her there with the promise of payment in gold coins and travel in a private rail car.

Needless to say, she accepted.

This reference to Jeff Britain's short biography comes after Stuttaford trashes his credibility as "an archivist at the Ayn Rand institute, the associate producer of an Oscar-nominated documentary about Rand, and obviously a keeper of the flame." First off, why does someone with an axe to grind (like Barbara Branden) have credibility as a biographer, but someone who admires Rand does not? Because the latter doesn't spend all his time rehashing the Rand-Branden affair? Or maybe it's because Stuttaford has accepted on faith that Rand is evil and will thus bend any actual facts at his disposal to make the "argument." So the merits of what these two authors have to say are irrelevant: how Stuttaford can use them to trash Rand is the only thing that matters. Stuttaford's idiot readers won't know the difference!

So how does Stuttaford herd his pliant, wooly-coated readership away from that nasty capitalist? By singling Rand out as apart from the herd. Rand is an "oddball." Even the fact that she accepts payment for a public appearance is made to look ridiculous. The form of the payment, gold coins, and the railroad trip were a nice tribute to Rand's most famous novel. No matter! That, too, is somehow a basis for trashing Rand.

This is a man who is out of ideas throwing everything but the kitchen sink (or, for that matter, an actual counterargument) at an intellectual giant. Aside from what I trudged through at length, there's a silly Freudian quip about a scene in one of the novels, there's the usual charge that her circle was a cult, and even a snide comment about how Rand looked. What a gentleman! Every kind of cheap-shot imaginable occurs in this typewritten sneer. The kind of readers who accept such lame substitutes for arguments are the kind who, ultimately, really don't make much of a difference in the world. The kind of readers who do care about ideas will think for themselves and eventually see through the hokum. They'll judge what Rand had to say on its own merits. Who knows? A few may even learn about her for the very first time because of this article. (Something like that drew my attention to Rand for the first time.) Her eloquent voice will still be heard and will still win their minds.

As for me, I think now I have an idea for how I'll celebrate February 2! I have managed not to see a film mentioned by Stuttaford in his article: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. I think that's how I'll celebrate Ayn Rand's 100th. Well, frat boy, I guess you were good for something after all!

-- CAV

1 comment:

Martin Lindeskog said...


Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a great documentary! Enjoy the film!

All the Best,