Monday, January 18, 2010

Ayn Rand II

Freddie DeBoer responds in the comments section to my post on Ayn Rand, which in turn was a response to his post:
Someone who I respect has long made this important point: Rand's philosophy was, in its infant stages, a very direct response to her experiences with Stalinism. It would be truly unfair for me to fail to keep that in mind when I think about her. Where I think criticism remains is in the fact that she lived in America for many decades (and could see very well that, for all of its advantages over Bolshevism, American capitalism wasn't some perfect machine for sorting the virtuous), without ever moderating her message; and in the fact that her followers don't have the excuse of intimate exposure to Stalinism, which makes their devotion to Objectivism less defensible. From my perspective, anyway.
There's a lot in this paragraph that resonated with me, actually.

Point one of what resonated: I was born in Israel, and thusly am descended from families that were fleeing the Holocaust. The national trauma that still exists in Israel is hard even for me, as an Israeli of Israelis, to fathom. It isn't often on the surface of national discussion, but if you push hard against most of the positions taken in Israel, it bubbles up suddenly, lashing out. The increasingly right-wing nation can only be understood in the context of the fading hope for a national haven from the Holocaust.

People close in my family will distance themselves from the rabid right in Israel, but sometimes interject something like, "You can understand where they come from, right?" Well, I can understand how they came to exist. But I don't know if I can call that any more or less "defensible" than those whose hatred I can't easily understand. What makes anyone's hatred or anger more or less defensible? It isn't as though there's a hard-and-fast rule that people who survive terrible tragedies are incapable of seeing beyond hate and fear -- for every Meir Kahane, there's an Elie Wiesel.

It's tough. There's a fine line between "understanding" and "defending." There are those who explain contemporary Israeli policy, and there are those who defend contemporary Israeli policy, and it is important to understand where you fall between that.

Also, speaking of Israeli policy, the current lowest of the low points in Israeli is Avigdor Lieberman who, like Ayn Rand, fled the Soviet Union. Do I understand that, growing up in the oppressive, anti-semitic Soviet Union, he'd be willing to stop at nothing to preserve the "Jewish character" of Israel? Perhaps. But I have no desire to defend him. Regardless of what has happened to him, he should be condemned.

On the other hand, Freddie's post deals with people who are Objectivist (I hate that name, by the way, it doesn't line up with what that philosophy means to me, but okay I'll bite). It takes a remarkable generosity of spirit to remain in dialogue with people who hold extreme views. As Freddie aptly puts it, "There's a lesson, in all of this, I think, about charity, and about grace." Scott Walters also commented on the "lack of generosity" with which Ayn Rand viewed the world. It resonated with me, reminiscent of the difficulty of conversations with the arch-conservative I lived with. That's the second point.

One of the lessons I learned there is to figure out where to fight, and where to let things slide. There's a tendency for us to grip each of our ideas as though they are our most important. Over the last year I've realized, for instance, that the government's decision to authorize torture is one of those hold-your-ground moments.

(from the testimony:
Chairman Conyers: I didn't ask you if you ever gave him advice, I asked you do you think the President could order a suspect buried alive?
Yoo: Mr. Chairman, my view right now, is I don't think a president would - no American president would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that.
See that? "I don't think a president would bury someone alive. But if he wanted to...")

The last thing I wanted to say is that Freddie's comment only further underscores how interesting it is that Ayn Rand's writings have lasted so long, and with such visceral power. See, she was writing in response to a specific context, the context that Freddie pointed out: the context of having escaped from Stalin's grasp. That is a uniquely gone context. Firstly, the context faded with the end of Stalin's reign of terror (not to diminish the fear and negative atmosphere of the rest of Soviet history, but Stalinism was a whole other league; post-Stalin is Iran, Stalin is North Korea). Then, the context faded with the end of the Cold War, when the "evil empire" left the daily reality for a new generation of Americans.

And remember, although this context was real for Ayn Rand, it was almost diametrically opposed to Americans' experiences. When Ayn Rand was writing, it was the one period in which more people were leaving the United States than were entering.

And also remember that for the Rand-devotees of my generation, the threat of "socialism" has gotten a lot more vague. Even in "Communist" China, the command economy has devolved into some pseudo-communist/pseudo-capitalist nether-economy. Our biggest threats have not come from the socialist countries (although North Korea has always been a managed risk), but rather from collapsed economies -- areas that were marginalized in the aftermath of the Cold War, such as post-Colonial Africa, Afghanistan, or the Middle East. With the exception of trust-fund ideologues like the Christmas Day undie-bomber, our biggest threats are linked to crippling poverty.

Anyways, my point is not to criticize Rand (although you can tell I think her world-view completely unrelated to the world we actually live in) but to marvel at the fact that many are more beguiled by the possibility of dangers that Rand seems to hint at then the real, immediate dangers of the world around us. Compared to, say, Muslim extremism, Rand's dangers are somewhat hypothetical. That's not to say she's wrong -- this is also the power of Orwell's writings, or of the Constitution itself -- but it's strange that it has so tangible an impact (you can't say that Orwell has the same devoted following).

Rand is an interesting case. She strikes so far outside of her context, and she grips the people she strikes.


clay barham said...

Ayn Rand's ideals were a rejection of her experience in a "prison," and her reaction would be the same as anyone else escaping it, except she put an ideology to it and described its opposite, individual freedom. This is what Americans today are rejecting because they have never experienced what it is like living in a "prison," although Obama is building the cage now under the guise of community interests being more important than self-interest. See Save Pebble Droppers & Prosperity on

Ian Thal said...

My own anecdotal, un-scientific experience with the handful of American Ayn Rand enthusiasts I have encountered points to one trait they had in common: They were all recovered substance abusers.

I got the impression that the message of individualism that is the basis of Rand's ethical philosophy gave them a secular frame of reference for conquering their demons: the problem is when they try to apply these principles to civil society, culture, law, or epistemology.

As far as Israel being haunted by the post-traumatic stress of the Shoah: I've certainly heard that hypothesis countless times and it might explain the extremist xenophobia of Avigdor Lieberman or Meir Kahane, I have more often heard it used to dismiss any of Israel's genuine security concerns as a purely psychological disturbance and to generally argue that Israel, and Jews in general, are incapable of being rational actors.