Ayn Rand Likes Systems, Not Humans

Gary Cooper in "The Fountainhead"

Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead”

I’ve been reading Gene Bell-Villada’s excellent book On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind (Cambridge Scholars, 2013) in an attempt to better understand the outsized impact impact that Ayn Rand’s two novels have had on the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, to the detriment of the country as a whole. Why do politicians like Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan go out of their way to sing the praises of Atlas Shrugged? (It sounds like a game: Ayn Rand—Rand Paul—Paul Ryan.)

I’ve always been puzzled by the hold of these novels on people given that Rand’s writing style is, as we used to say, nothing to write home about. Here’s Bell-Villada describing Fountainhead:

This is not one of those complex cases in which you reject an artist’s repugnant world view yet can admire their artistry—as progressives at times do with, say, T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, D. W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl. Fountainhead in this regard qualifies as a competent, commercial middlebrow novel, neither better nor worse than dozens of such titles cranked out by trade houses year after year. A suspenseful page-turner with a serviceable if not stunning prose style, it has able plotting and an impressive command of snappy, wise-guy sorts of American dialogue and street corner speech (skills Rand learned in Hollywood), along with high charged eroticism, albeit of a particular type.

Bell-Villada does acknowledge that the story and doctrine are ably integrated (unlike in Atlas Shrugged) but notes that, as in the later book, every character falls into “an ideological or moral type, a mouthpiece for this philosophical position or that.”

Atlas Shrugged is even worse:

This is a narrative inordinately made up of relentless speechifying and counter-sermonizing, the contents of which are thoroughly predictable and lacking in subtlety of any sort. The big brown book of Chairman Rand’s thought is, quite simply, a very bad long novel that nonetheless has moved and inspired countless true believers out there, and still does.

So why do these novels draw devoted followers? Bell-Villada believes it’s because they plug into a central American narrative:

Self-help. The self-made man. These are among the most treasured folk ideas in the American civil religion. They predate Rand and would have remained as a force with or without her, but she brought to them the combined allure of “science,” theory, and sexual intrigue.

Bell-Villada notes that it takes a certain kind of reader to thrill to such fiction:

[M]any of Rand’s youthful admirers have been science-and-math wonks, whiz kids with a considerable gift for abstract cerebral schemes but whose knowledge of emotions and understanding of human ties is at best slight.

And further on:

Whatever quotable passages exist in Rand are so because of the shock value of the outrageous arguments therein trumpeted (as well as the subjacent values and hatreds therein implied)—and naught else. Quite simply, there is little of beauty in Ayn Rand, save for the seductive beauty of the system itself, so alluring to the young, the susceptible, the incompletely educated, and the unhappy.

This preference for abstract system over human beings is worth noting given the economic pronouncements coming out of today’s GOP rightwing–such as that long-term unemployment insurance is doing a “disservice” to the unemployed (Sen. Rand Paul); that those receiving food stamps are “unwilling to work” (Rep. Stephen Fincher); and that social entitlement programs are “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives” (Paul Ryan). These politicians don’t see real people. They see abstractions.

They are are also blind to how they themselves have been helped, just as Ayn Rand was. Bell-Villada takes particular pleasure in showing the disconnect between Rand’s pronouncements and her actual life. He sets this up first by setting forth her philosophy of self-sufficiency:

Hand in hand with Ayn Rand’s absolute anti-determinism goes her personal cult of the free-standing individual who allegedly depends on no one. The motto of John Galt and the concluding words in his seventy-page manifesto readily sum up his position. Citing again: “I swear—by my life and my life of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The declaration would become the proud motto of many a would-be John Galt around U.S. college and corporate corridors.

Similarly, in Rand’s epilogue to the novel, she briefly describes her development as a writer, and in her second paragraph she proudly proclaims, “No one helped me, nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

Only that’s never the way it happens. Bell-Villada details the help that Rand did in fact receive on her way to wealth and fame, from her mother’s jewels that financed her trip to the United States; to the free room and board, money and reference letter she received from her American relatives; to the subsidized housing she got at the Hollywood Studio Club; to… The list goes on and on, all the way to the cancer surgery that would have bankrupted her had it not been for Medicare.

Read Bell-Villada’s book, which proves once and for all that Ayn Rand’s novels are fantasies. Unfortunately, they are fantasies that have infected the minds of people with the power to make your life miserable.

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  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    Dear Robin: As the author of ON NABOKOV, AYN RAND AND THE LIBERTARIAN MIND, I very much appreciate the glowing yet accurate account you’ve provided of my book. My sincerest thanks!

    BTW, there’s a typo in your first quotation: “it has able plotting and an impressive command of snappy, wise-guy sorts of plotting and an impressive command of snappy, wise-guy sorts of American dialogue”.

    The second “plotting and an impressive command” is an inadvertent repetition and should be deleted, if you are able to. Sorry to be the nit-picking editor!

    Again, my warmest thanks to you!

  • “Self-help. The self-made man. These are among the most treasured folk ideas in the American civil religion. ”

    1) not a religion;
    2) not a folk song;
    3) re-read as: “freedom, independance, individual rights and prosperity”

    if you can even grok that, you might no longer be “puzzled” and instead discover the spectacular beauty in Ayn Rand’s writing and the thrill when she taps into human emotion.

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for catching this and my apologies, Gene. I’ll fix these right away.

    Now “grok” isn’t a word I haven’t heard in a long time, John–from Strangers in a Strange Land, as I recall. Are you sure you’re not seeing spectacular beauty in how you like her ideas rather than in the writing itself? I read “religion” and “folk song” as Bell-Villada’s way of getting at a key American mythos. It’s undoubtedly powerful.

  • James S. Valliant

    Your literary “opinion” might be taken more seriously if you:
    1. Showed even a slight grasp of the plot, style or actual theme of the novel;
    2. Indicated even a basic grasp of her actual ideas;
    3. Avoided personal attacks on Rand which are factually false;
    4. Showed the dimmest awareness of the growing academic and scholarly literature discussing Rand’s literary methods and philosophical ideas–the scores and scores of articles in top journals and books published via outfits like Cambridge University Press by Rand’s serious students and the growing number of tenured academics, writers and others deeply influenced by her. (Speaking of which, Robert Heinlein, who gave us the word “grok,” was an admirer of Rand.)

    Rand held ideas to be merely ~ means ~ to the end of human life: reason is humanity’s only causal means of knowledge, and thus their most fundamental tool of survival. She rejected any theory-practice dichotomy as a consequence, holding mysticism to be responsible for this breach wherever it occurs.

    No, she understood the real human consequences of collectivism–and that is what she fought: the slavery and death-worship that socialism necessarily entails. And that is why is she simply ~ must ~ be called a mediocre writer, an inhuman monster, etc., in some quarters. Her impact is just too great.

    But the basic prerequisite of literary analysis is an accurate understanding of a writer’s theme. Without that, no analysis of literary means can even commence. Fortunately, there are now volumes of edited essays on each of her novels, so there is now no excuse for this kind of empty attack.

    Alas, you won’t make a dent in her popularity. Anti-truths like your have been pumped out for decades now to little effect. When readers discover the truth for themselves, they now know who is peddling lies, and who is telling the truth. They become all the more committed, thanks to folks like you.

    To recognize what Rand so lucidly said, what she so clearly meant, and how she actually approached writing is simply impossible for you, given your politics, as you have spelled out so well. We understand.

  • Ayn Rand was Not associated with the Idea of Libertarian-ism – which is a Crude Mixture of her Philosophy and Anarchism. An example of which can be seen in her reference to the Early Battles over the “Air Waves” of Radio.

    There has been a Vicious Misinterpretation of Ayn Rand from those that Truly Do Not Fully Understand her Foundations. You can’t conveniently Cherry Pick or “You” can’t have your cake and eat it too! Hint: Individual Values.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    The Randian true-believers have descended with their dogmas and slogans! Here they come!

    To Mr. Donohue:

    1.”Civil religion” is a term commonly used in literary and sociological discourse. “Cult” is more appropriate in this case, though.

    2. I wrote “folk idea,” not “folk song”! This misreading of yours says something about your eve for detail.

    BTW, I anatomize & satirize Randians in my book, and you guys sound as if you walked right out of its pages!

  • James S. Valliant

    “Dogmas and slogans”? That’s pretty rich when all you offer here is empty name-calling yourself.

    Your satires only satirize your own basic, factual ignorance of Rand’s thought, creating a sad self-parody.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    To James S. Valliant:

    A standard tactic of Randian true-believers is to attack any critic of her work by claiming that 1) the critic has not read her works, and/or 2) the critic (tsk, tsk) does not understand her works.

    Your list is therefore completely predictable and in character with the Pavlovian responses of Rand cultists.

    And where, pray tell are the personal attacks on Rand in this site that are “factually false”? Again, Randians love to speak in generalities, slogans, and sermons.

    The same goes for Mr. David Landau’s reply.

  • 1) No, your use of “religion”, which we have seen thousands of times (please get a new smear, how about it) when discussing Ayn Rand, was meant to inculcate the unquestioning irrationality of the true believer, the “follower” of a superstition, your deployment of the weasel phrase “literary and sociological discourse notwithstanding.

    2) your failure to understand a literary device thrown back at your slur says something about your dull imagination.

    3) Your book must be really boring and smarmy. Childish satire from dull people always is.

  • James S. Valliant

    Well, since no one has to go anywhere but this page to see Rand’s ideas being badly misrepresented, those who know what Rand ~ actually ~ said about the role of the individual in economic production, for example, can see here, very concretely, just what I mean.

    Since Rand did appreciate how human cooperation and the division labor works, indeed, showing how a railroad, for example, depends on customers and freight to carry, vividly demonstrating the interconnected nature of economic production in her novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, the claims made here are truly bizarre. The woman who runs that railroad is hurt every time another industry folds, each time another producer leaves the scene. Rand did not deny the power of coordinated action–no, her critics want to pretend that individual achievement does not exist, at all. Like Obama, they proclaim, “You didn’t build that,” as if the benefits of coordinated action could ever justify slavery, in any form or scale.

    But, of course, everyone who has worked at, say, a factory (like myself) knows just how badly certain individuals are missed on the job when they go out, and what he or she contributes to the whole, and what role the individual plays. That’s why Obama was so easily ridiculed for saying that nonsense. Indeed, just as all consumption is ultimately individual, so all effort and thought is, too, even as we stand on the mighty shoulders of the past and embedded in its context. To miss this important aspect of her thought is to do a grave injustice to her ideas–no, it’s missing the rest of her nuanced thought on the subject altogether. And that is saying something.

    What Rand argued was that this coordination of economic activity should be voluntary, and not done at the point of gun. She argued that everyone benefited, most especially the poor, from such freedom, and she eagerly pointed to the overwhelming body of facts supporting her case. Real, individual people were always her concern, and the tragic reality of their interests being forever sacrificed to the abstract and never-realized goals of the collectivist.

    So, in fact, Rand is constantly being misrepresented in the media. Like, right here.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    Dear Robin:

    Have you noticed how all Randians sound alike? They all talk like the rude, crude, nasty heroes in Rand’s novels! (Their way of emulating John Galt, I suppose.) Truly twisted human beings, they are…

  • Rachel Kranz

    Full disclosure–I worked a bit on Gene’s book in its final stages, as an editor, so I had the chance to read, admire, and enjoy it thoroughly.

    Reading the comments by the Randians, I don’t think it’s just a matter of seeing abstractions rather than people, Robin, although I think you’re correct to point that out. But I also now wonder if part of the power of Randian thought is to encourage its followers to simply block out or ignore anything that inconveniently contradicts their ideology or that might inspire empathy or fellow-feeling (both of which Rand explicitly condemns as weakness and a misunderstanding of the nature of life). It’s not that they acknowledge those results and say, “I accept that as part of the greater good.” They act as though those results simply don’t exist, whether we’re talking about the human misery caused by the government shutdown, OR the danger to the US economy caused by that shutdown.

    Likewise, Paul Ryan didn’t say, “My mother unfortunately had to depend upon the State to pull herself up by her bootstraps, but the State should never have played that role.” Instead he describes her RIDING THE BUS to a STATE UNIVERSITY while she is ON WELFARE as an example of individualism. How do you block out the very facts that you are citing?

    If you want to be even-handed, you can talk about regime’s like Pol Pot or China’s Cultural Revolution as showing similar blindness, and in his book, Gene makes a lot of the similarities between Randianism and Stalinism. Whatever the ostensible end, the scary thing is the blindness–the CELEBRATION of blindness. Maybe one of the reasons for Rand’s enduring popularity in the US is the way it teaches people to block out human suffering or inconvenient truths in favor of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”–a view of the world that happens to make you feel better, even if it has no relationship to truth.

  • To Rachel Kranz: There is no such thing as a “Randian.”

  • To Gene H. Bell-Villada

    All of you people look alike to us.
    So boring.
    Rude and nasty.

  • James S. Valliant

    Your unremitting personal attacks are the very embodiment of civil discourse, sir, as all can tell, and my simple observation that Rand is being misrepresented is just so nasty and crude. 🙂

    My work is done here.

  • James S. Valliant

    But I can’t resist adding some more facts. Let’s just take the last error from the above: Rand could have easily afforded the cancer surgery that she had without Medicare, as the size of her estate showed. Now, also recall that government policies had not driven medical costs so outrageously high by that point, either. My working class, blue collar relatives afforded having cancer surgeries and heart attacks in the days before Medicare ever existed and without going bankrupt. Go figure.

  • Well Gene, let’s start with something Simple. An Individual has Values (key word – individual) – where did Rand go wrong with this Ideal Foundation? Please Note: In my Industry, I am what I call a One Percenter, because I think for myself (Book coming soon)

  • Again, cut the “Randian” stereotype – It’s typical and condescending.

  • A. West

    Interesting. I think both Ayn Rand and Nabokov were great writers. In addition, Rand was a great thinker, meaning she integrated and systematized.
    I am glad to learn that Bell-Villada dislikes both writers. It shows that his dislike of good work is consistent, and wide-encompassing.

    James Valliant – your work is indeed already done. I do think there is a new cottage industry of “anti-Randians” forming. The first group was concentrated amongst the religious conservatives, and the libertarian-Branden crew. Now there’s a cottage industry of left-wing electronic hothouse pseudo-intellectuals trying to score political points by setting up a strawman Ayn Rand to tear down.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    To David Landau:

    The suffix “-ian” is a traditionally neutral marker that indicates either 1)a person who believes in something, or 2) a thing or individual with certain characteristics. Hence “Freudian,” “Marxian,” “Weberian” for no. 1, and “Bachian,” “Proustian,” or “Joycean” for no. 2. The notion that the term “Randian” is condescending is truly strange. What is the word, then, for a person who believes in the ideas of Ayn Rand?

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    To A. West:

    The idea that I dislike Nabokov the writer is an invention of your own making. On the contrary, in my book I express at length and repeatedly my admiration for LOLITA, PALE FIRE, and other works of his. But I also show that Nabokov was an unpleasant, arrogant, and dogmatic sort–something with which many readers agree. Nabokov nastily dismissed hundreds of great writers simply because he disagree with their aesthetic. He also supported McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, and if I am not mistaken, many Randians ended up opposing that war… One can admire a writer yet dislike the man.

  • James S. Valliant

    Ayn Rand herself ~ famously ~ opposed the Vietnam War, all along, as those who are familiar with her published books know. She fiercely opposed the draft at the same time, as well. And her influence helped end the draft, through that of students like Martin Anderson. You didn’t know any of that, either?

    Again, you must surely know that Rand’s philosophy is called “Objectivism” and that those who agree with her ~ philosophy ~ (as opposed to any other aspect of her wide-ranging thought) are therefore called “Objectivists,” just to be clear. Rand also said that she disliked the term “Randian.” As an expert on Rand, you must know this, too. And good manners normally advise me to call people what ~ they ~ like to be called, e.g., atheist, Marxist or Communist, Pragmatist, Existentialist, etc.

    Again and again, you seem not to know much about Rand, her work or the school of thought that she started.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    To Mr. Valliant:

    As I said above, Randians love to attack anyone who criticize their goddess as
    “not knowing much about Rand, her work or the school of thought she started.” They attacked the biographies by Burns and Heller on these grounds. So your response falls typically within that established pattern. I actually mention Rand’s opposition to the Vietnam war in my posting, and yet you accuse me of not knowing about it.

    Rand, BTW, only started opposing the Vietnam war in 1967, years after it had started. Before that, she had argued that the US had a right to fight “dictatorships”, meaning left-wing regimes. And by constantly comparing the USSR to Nazi Germany, she had laid the groundwork for a defense of that Vietnam war. She was a johnny-come-lately in the anti-war movement. And many of her disciples continued to support that war years later.

    Meanwhile, recently, the Ayn Rand Institute in California fully supported the Iraq War, and called for the US to occupy the Iraqi oil fields and hand them over to private business. That’s Rand’s legacy for you.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada:
    Nabokov Lolita: pathetic tale of murderer with stunted manhood. You extol this.
    Rand Atlas Shrugged: projection of the highest potential of mankind. You mock this.

  • Regardless of your reaching with the Suffix, it’s obviously condescending just in the way “you” express yourself. Gene: I am an Honest Guy, but what do you disagree with in her Book – Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal for example – since you “seem” to know so much about Rand. BTW: I have never been called Jonesian, but I glean from the works of one Arthur Jones. Only you seem to be snide about this.

  • James S. Valliant

    Wow. Where to start?

    No, Ayn Rand–not just “many Randians,” sir–opposed the Vietnam War because, as she explained, we ~ never ~ had any good reason for being there in the first place. Never. Yes, we could have won the war had we fought it to win, but we should never have taken it on, at all, as she explained in her 1967 speech, since we never had any national interest there, at all. Yes, there would be terrible consequences to withdrawing, as indeed proved to be true, too, but a no-win scenario was already underway. And her opinion never changed on the matter.

    Her public opposition in 1967 was perfectly consistent with her earlier stated views on war and foreign policy in general, as those familiar with her ideas also know. Indeed, what Rand said ~ before ~ 1967 made her public statement that year easily predictable for those familiar with her work, even ignoring what her friends already knew about her view of that war. (And before 1967, there was still no Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite had not yet “lost middle America” for Johnson’s war, and Hanoi Jane hadn’t yet started her FTA campaign, either. And while he had previously opposed the war, Martin Luther King’s major speech against the war came in 1967, too.)

    In 1964, for example, Rand presciently ~ and publicly ~ predicted that the entire Soviet Empire could taken out without the loss of “a single American life.” In essays like “The Roots of War,” she held war to be the inevitable result of statism and dictatorship, and she observed that free people always abhor war. And although the draft is not explicitly mentioned in the novel, if you can’t see that she opposed the draft just from reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’ then let me suggest that missed quite a bit.

    ARI opposed the Iraq war in much the same way that Ayn Rand opposed the Vietnam War. Even before 9/11, the founder of ARI, Leonard Peikoff opposed the air strikes on Iraq under Clinton, calling those efforts “the wrong war” in January of 1997. He believed then, with some prescience, that the real problem was Iran. In October of 2001, Peikoff indeed called for a military response as result of the 9/11 attacks in the ‘New York Times’ itself. But, once more, he specified Iran, not Iraq, and repeatedly stated in public appearances subsequently that Iraq was the wrong war. Since that time, ARI affiliated intellectuals have indeed observed that Hussein, the dictator, had no legitimacy, and that if we were to fight, we should fight to win, as we did not, but again, that this was the wrong war n the first place. And ARI never stopped attacking the way we fought there, either. And, again, they always opposed any “nation-building” efforts or prolonged occupation, as well.

    And, yes, when expensive facilities built ~ and owned ~ by foreign oil companies were nationalized, i.e. stolen, America had every right to take them back by force, just as they were stolen by force. Had we done something about Iran’s aggressive acts of war in the 1970s, we might have avoided a massive amount of pain and innocent bloodshed since, not to mention the misery of the peoples in the region.

    This is a tradition of which Objectivists are quite proud.

    Getting Rand and her students wrong, as you persist in doing, is now a venerable tradition, as you would know if you were actually familiar with her work or the literature about it. In a 1957 review of ‘Atlas’ in ‘National Review’, Whittaker Chambers called her a “crude materialist,” for example, and even many who were later critics of Rand recognized that this was grossly mistaken and unfair. But compared to your own take on her views of the individual’s role in economic production, Chambers’ understanding of Objectivism appears sophisticated. In the 1970s, the late Prof. Robert Nozick published in a top philosophy journal his own attempted critique of what he called “the Randian Argument,” only for that essay to be embarrassingly and immediately taken apart by Professors Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in the pages of that same publication, and these two academics are anything but “cultists.” They are themselves libertarian critics of Rand. Prof. Burns was kind enough to engage me in a public symposium on her recent biography, and when I pointed out just a few of her clear errors about Rand’s thought and history, her own reply did not even attempt to contradict a single element of what I said in that respect. And she is a scholar of the field by comparison to Heller–or you.

    Rand–her life, her ideas, and the movement she started–are in fact being constantly misrepresented, crudely and obviously, and you are just one more obvious example.

  • James S. Valliant

    I am sorry. For clarity, of course, I should have said:

    And ~ when Rand spoke in 1967 ~ there was still no Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite had not yet “lost middle America” for Johnson’s war, and Hanoi Jane hadn’t yet started her FTA campaign, either.

  • James S. Valliant

    A funny aspect of this discussion is that others get Rand wrong in precisely the opposite way that you do–some near-pacifist libertarians have precisely the opposite mistaken view of Rand’s ideas on foreign policy. They note Rand’s fierce complaints about earlier Progressives’ “imperialistic” war ventures, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s and the whole of World War I, as well as her opposition to Vietnam, and they cite her famous Non-Aggression Principle (minus, of course, its doctrine of rational self-defense), and then claim that bellicose interventionists somehow highjacked her movement. They ignore that Rand held dictatorships to be morally illegitimate, given the coercion they use against their own people, and therefore subject to being morally overthrown by anyone, at any time. If they do mention this, they quickly stress that Rand also held that this does not imply that America ~ should ~ go to war against any particular dictatorship, and, like me, observe that Rand believed that the Soviets could be overthrown without any war at all. Those, like yourself, who think comparisons between the Soviets and the Nazis to be unfair, of course, favor some brutal dictatorships over others. Rand opposed them all. Both simply ignore the inconvenient when they paint Rand however they choose.

  • Michael Caution

    Bell-Villada: “They all talk like the rude, crude, nasty heroes in Rand’s novels! (Their way of emulating John Galt, I suppose.) Truly twisted human beings, they are…”

    The supposed scholar who can’t be bothered with actual critical analysis; who would rather attack his critics psychologically and intimidate rather than face the question whether he is wrong or not. And I also think James Valliant has shown multiple times that it is not some arbitrary formula for Rand defenders to claim critics don’t understand Rand’s thought. Time and again Valliant has corrected you on your “understanding” of Rand. You probably do hear it said a lot that critics don’t understand Rand and your response is to believe that this criticism occurs so often that it can’t be valid. However, if you were to actually go through the argument as Valliant has shown you would see that it’s possible for a lot of people to be wrong about the same thing. But judging from your quoted method of argumentation I know not to expect anything from you.

    Rachel Kranz: “[Randians] (sic) act as though those results simply don’t exist, whether we’re talking about the human misery caused by the government shutdown, OR the danger to the US economy caused by that shutdown.”

    Judging by your examples I can explain your confusion. What you call blindness on the part of Objectivists, or capitalists even, by somehow ignoring the misery caused by a potential govt shutdown is in fact blindness on your part, on the part of statist policies that have driven us to our current situation. You see a govt shutdown looming today but pay no head to the consequences tomorrow. This is purposeful ignorance or as Rand called evasion. What your examples show and what all statist critiques lack is context. You don’t worry about how we got here or where it will lead you just want the govt to do “something”, “somehow”. Well, “you can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality”. Or “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. These evaluations on the part of Objectivists and capitalists depends on well established economic history and principles of human nature. You may disagree with the politics our analysis is based on but to claim it blindness is simplistic and false.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    Yes, I understand. The only people who truly, truly understand Ayn Rand are Randians themselves. Everyone else simply misunderstands her and her deep wisdom.

    Frankly, I don’t bother with the long-winded, hair-splitting, scholastic sophistries of libertarians, Randians, and Objectivists. I’ve dealt with them at length in two books of mine–ON NABOKOV, AYN RAND AND THE LIBERTARIAN MIND and THE PIANIST WHO LIKED AYN RAND: A NOVELLA & 13 STORIES. So if you want to argue with me, try to address what I say in there. After all, Robin Bates’s blog is about my book, the former one.

  • Rachel Kranz

    Michael Caution, I’m curious. Do you not agree that Paul Ryan–in citing his mother’s story of individualist triumph–was evasive (whether deliberately, as a manipulation; or unconsciously, as a lack of awareness) about the role of “statism” in her success: the welfare checks, the public transport, the public university?

    I suppose you could argue that had those institutions not existed, she and the economy would have been the stronger for it; that she succeeded despite and not because of them . But that, at least, was a piece of context that HE left out in his remarks. He didn’t analyze the whole situation–he focused on the individualist part and left out of the role of society. For those of us who believe in the importance of that role, it looked like either bad faith or ignorance on his part. If he DID see the context, you couldn’t tell it from what he said–and my own critique was precisely in order to bring out the context that he ignored or chose not to mention.

    You and I don’t agree on what the basic realities of economics and human nature are, so we aren’t going to agree on much else. To me, Paul Ryan, who celebrated his mother’s achievement without acknowledging the role of government-supported programs in that achievement, is the one who leaves out the context, is evasive, either because he is dishonest or because he is blind.

    I make these points not because I think you & I will ever agree, but because I want anyone else reading these posts to at least imagine that there is another way to define “context” than the one that you have used to discount my concerns. The fact that Ayn Rand herself ignored the role of all the people and institutions who helped HER–she didn’t explain them away, she simply spoke and wrote as though they did not exist–feels like part of the legacy of her thought and her movement. You could see that same intellectual tradition in the Republican conventioneers who objected to Pres. Obama saying that any business achievements depended upon the infrastructure and social context within which they were made. To me, that is the denial of context.

    Again, I understand that we don’t agree. Now whoever reads these posts can see both sides of the argument laid out and choose for themselves!

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    Just to add to Rachel’s comment: When the father of Paul Ryan (our true-believing Randian congressman) passed away, guess how a teen-aged Paul survived and went on to college? A: VIA SOCIAL SECURITY SURVIVOR BENEFITS!! (A fact the honorable congressman never admits to in public!) Then, later on, good ol’ Ryan talks about privatizing Social Security! How’s that for the most blatant hypocrisy?

  • Michael Caution

    Rachel Kranz, this does come down to how one uses the concept “context”. There is no other way to use the concept as you loosely imply. You’re either right or wrong.

    Regarding public infrastructure it is not relevant to cite those things you mention when claiming what you might call an “individualist work ethic” because [here’s the actual context] public infrastructure is forced upon all of us and there are no other options available; or legitimate free markets options are forced out by govt monopolies. The rational thing to do would be to get rid of all public infrastructure so that it were private. However, given that it is now done by the govt we’re forced to use it. But that doesn’t mean we then have to bow down and praise the govt. An apt analogy I’ve heard before says: The govt breaks your leg then hands you a crutch saying, “See I saved you!”. That’s utter garbage and it’s insulting. That’s why there was such a big uproar when Obama said “You didn’t build that” because that one sentence ignores the whole context of public vs. private property, and the govt monopolies that thwart individuals daily, and diminishes the achievements of individuals who have actually succeeded on their own despite the roadblocks put in their way by the govt.

    This is the actual context because it is fundamental to the actual problem you bring up. As you said we don’t agree politically but that doesn’t mean you get to evade the question of whether infrastructure should be privately owned or not. As Objectivists we say that man has an absolute right to property b/c his right to life entails all the actions necessary and proper, for a rational human being, in the furtherance of his life. To understand that you’d have to study Rand’s ethics.

    Bell-Villada: I won’t address anything you say b/c you’ve shown yourself not to be capable of rational discussion but would rather insult and malign those who critique you.

  • Rachel Kranz

    For the record, I DON’T evade the question: I believe infrastructure should be publicly owned, and I find Rand’s ethics repugnant. She–and perhaps you, too–would no doubt find my ethics repugnant. But even if you think the government broke your leg and then handed you a crutch, you should admit that you got the crutch, and then explain that you wish you hadn’t needed it–not omit its mention when you are trying to take that crutch away from others who need it.

    I don’t expect us to agree, but I’m sorry you don’t respect the degree to which I am taking your and Rand’s arguments into account. You can have the last word if you want it–there’s no point in discussing any further.

  • James S. Valliant

    How funny. The guy who wrote two books on Rand(!) dismisses the discussion of how ~ he ~ got Rand’s most basic ideas flat wrong as “hairsplitting.” The very ideas that he claims for Rand just ain’t Rand’s, and his ridiculous version of her “individualism” bears little resemblance to her real individualism, as one can easily show using the same material that he allegedly “cites.” But, no matter, even if his take is like claiming that Marx was a Christian idealist, don’t let the facts get in the way of his attack from Bizarro World.

    That’s just “hairsplitting.”

    At least as odd is Rachel Krantz. If a gangster broke your leg and offered you “help wit dat leg ya got der,” you’d have no problem seeing the morally repugnant aspect of offering any “gratitude”(or even recognition) under the circumstances. Since the government is not the only theoretically possible source for crutches, indeed, since it has driven up the cost and price of crutches and has slowed innovation in the field of crutches as such, the sick should feel as warm and cuddly about the offered crutches as the victim in a Soviet hospital of yore. Finally, of course, if the legs would have been perfectly healthy without the government’s entire process of “helping,” then any gratitude or recognition of help is simply perverse.

    Indeed, my gratitude is reserved for the crutch provider who does not require that I use only his services for crutches–whether because he has priced other options out of existence by law or because he has ordered it by force of law. (Monopolies maintained by force do not become benevolent just because the state runs them.)

    Moreover, my gratitude is misplaced, in any event, if it goes to a government official who took the product of the labor of someone else to provide me with that crutch. My real gratitude should go to the people who created the wealth that made it possible, not the bureaucrat who redirected their wealth to me without asking.

    And, of course, being involuntary, this whole situation is outside of the realm of gratitude. No one willingly gave me the product of his or her labor at all–it was taken by force to be given to me in the first place. The producer was not the “giver.” The “giver” has taken his gift against the will from one person and offered with my asking to me. The justification for using this kind of coercion is that it is my RIGHT, it is the moral duty of the richer person to provide me with crutches. Well, under those circumstances, of course, no gratitude is required for the crutches. They are an “entitlement.” Right?

    In any case, forget “gratitude”: if it can be shown that people would need a lot less crutches if it weren’t for government’s efforts to “help” everyone, then it is truly only in Bizarro World where the idea of acknowledging their “help” as “help” would make any sense whatever.

    And defending that is truly repugnant.

  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    John Galt’s 70 pages. Mr. Valliant’s endless paragraphs. They’re all cut from the same half-crazed cloth.

  • James S. Valliant

    Yep. Once more, who is “half-crazed” and who is calm and civil just leaps out from this very page.

  • Julian Hassan

    Does anyone still read this page? I would like to explain how Ayn Rand explicitly does not believe that art should have beauty apart from purpose of a novel. She rejected the idea of art for art’s sake. So did Victor Hugo. No one can say Hugo is a bad writer as easily, so let’s discuss it at that level. I am a senior at Vassar College.

  • Robin Bates

    I’m interested in hearing more, Julian. Are you saying that art for Rand was instrumental? Unlike Rand, Hugo was interested in human beings in all their contradictory complexity.

  • Pingback: Flannery O’Connor’s Dislike of Ayn Rand()

  • Irfan Khawaja

    I realize I’m joining this debate a year late–but then, I don’t really intend to join the debate at all. I just have a question and figured that either Professor Bates or Professor Bell-Villada would know the answer: In her 1964 Playboy interview, Rand was asked for her opinion of Nabokov, and replied that she’d read a book and a half of Nabokov’s, the “half” being Lolita, which she couldn’t finish. What was the whole book she did finish? Is that known? I havent read Professor Bell-Villada’s book yet (I intend to), so apologies if it’s discussed there.

  • Robin

    I’ve contacted Gene, Irfan. Stay tuned.

  • Irfan Khawaja


  • Robin

    Gene wrote back with the following note, Irfan:
    Sorry, but I don’t know what was the other book of Nabokov’s that Rand might have read. I don’t think anybody knows, really!

  • Irfan Khawaja

    Thanks for looking. I’ve sent a query to the Ayn Rand Archive. if they respond, and know the answer, I’ll pass it on.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    The Ayn Rand Archive had Shoshana Milgram Knapp of Virginia Tech respond to me. There’s no hard evidence one or the other, but Professor Knapp surmises that the book that Rand read cover to cover was “Bend Sinister.” She mentions this conjecture in a forthcoming paper in Nabokov Studies, but apparently doesn’t discuss it in detail–which makes sense, since there’s no hard evidence to discuss.


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