Randoids Circling the Queen Bee

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It is always amusing to read people’s responses to my writings, and the assumptions they often bring to their comments about my experiences. My earlier blog about Ayn Rand’s views of “big business” provides an example. Some of her defenders — who know nothing of my upbringing nor with whom I have ever had a personal conversation – accused me of not having read her works; or defending my own “nihilism” or, in the alternative, my religion against her atheism. It was my alleged “unfamiliarity” with her works — particularly Atlas Shrugged — that led me to say what I did, some seemed to suggest, otherwise I would have been as smitten as they with this brilliant, articulate, and charismatic woman.

For the record, I was quite involved in reading Rand’s works during the period 1960 to 1964. My wife and I subscribed to two of Nathaniel Branden’s taped lecture series; we traveled to Chicago to hear her speak; I spent an entire class session in a graduate course on “Marxism” — taught by an internationally respected Marxist [who, by the way, was one of the best teachers I ever had] — defending Rand and contrasting her views with those of Marx; and while I did not read Atlas Shrugged to the end of the book, I did read many of her non-fiction essays. During this time period, I became increasingly convinced of the untenable notion that “truth” and “values” have an objective (oops, Objective) quality to them that can be discerned by clear thinking. All that I know — or can ever know — arises from the subjective processes of my mind, as my present experiences are filtered through the concepts, constructs, even the language, that inhere in my mind from my prior learning. All of the moralistic foot-stomping, name-calling, and intellectual tantrum-throwing of the Randian true-believers does not change this fact. Bible-thumping can occur in any religion, be it secular or evangelical in nature. Added to this learning was an awareness, brought about through my readings of economics and economic history, that Rand’s understanding of the realpolitik of state systems and their interconnectedness with the business system was woefully inadequate.

My overall experiences with Rand’s writings were most rewarding, however. She served as an important catalyst for the development of my own ideas, a process that Rand as well as her devoted followers — even while espousing individualism, freedom, and reason — found intolerable if it led to conclusions that differed from Rand’s. Just as failed scientific experiments promote learning by allowing us to discover what does NOT work, my experiences with Rand allowed me to reject certain ideas and embrace others. But her desire to create a kind of grand unified theory that would make all other philosophic systems irrelevant and for all time became even more absurd as its pretentiousness reached into the details of daily life. The idea that artistic expression and other forms of aesthetics, literary styles, and even popular dance-steps had an “Objective” quality to them is a proposition so childish that I can only wonder how so many men and women who like to pretend to be “rational” can fail to see it as anything more than a preference for one’s preferences!

Rand did bring about three ends for which we should all be grateful: [1] she took on the monster of collective thinking and collectivist systems at a time when it was totally unthinkable for any decent person to do so, and she did so with the most passionate of energy; [2] she helped to liberate the study of philosophy from academia, and put it into the hands of ordinary people where it had always belonged; and [3] her consistent hostility to war, a position not followed by some of her current self-described “heirs.” For such successes, she will always have a fondness in both my mind and heart. But, unlike her faithful, respect for her accomplishments will not prevent me from criticizing her errors or her occasional silliness. I will continue to pick-and-choose from her and the many other people whose works and efforts have helped me to become who I am. I remain, in the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, a “hunter and gatherer of values,” an attribute that will no doubt reflect the “whim worshiper” that my experiences with Ms. Rand helped me to become.

9:03 pm on November 9, 2009