Friday, October 31, 2008

Atlas Shuddered At Last

Dead for 26 years, Alisa Rosenbaum who transformed herself into Ayn Rand has had an astonishing presence in Washington and New York power circles. I know from my own youth how enticing and intoxicating her ideas are — from unfettered capitalism to heady sexuality.

From cabinet members to the Cato Institute to former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, Randists abound. Many libertarians identify as such as well. Surely the most powerful of the set was Greenspan, who largely directed our economy for four decades.

Greenspan recently admitted to a Congressional committee that his model of 40 years was flawed (of course, not that he was). Most telling was his almost-confession at the end of his testimony — "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

That is in fact a backdoor repudiation of the most essential tenet of Randist philosophy and literature. Even President Ronald Reagan used a variation in his trickle-down economics lie. We had also heard that during the Robber Baron period and earlier in slavery and feudal periods. Trust those in charge of an economy to do what is best for even the lowliest of the underlings. They are wealthy and powerful because they are wiser than ordinary schmucks.

Greenspan's mealy mouthed admission that unregulated capitalism failed the nation and the world will not change the minds and hearts of other Randists. Those who don't know the Who is John Galt? question and who have never read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged are missing essential concepts that work in our society and government. Even if you disdain Rand's cry for laisse-faire capitalism, you should know what's at work.

I write this knowing that if the Reason maggy folk run across the post, they are likely to leave, shall we say vivid, comments here and in their own forum. The Randist sorts tend to what Emerson called a foolish consistency. Like too many academicians, no nit is too small to pick and no moot point is above being named the major sin of a false premise.

That's okay. I've been there and been that person.

I was 15 and just entering 10th grade in a new city in a new state when I picked up my mother's copies of Rand's two major works. I loved them. I played the characters. I found girlfriends as eager to be my submissives. I found a level of self-righteousness previously unknown. From what I hear from high-school classmates, I was right obnoxious.

The time to grok Randism is when you are immature and when you have a high need for absolutes. Ayn Rand didn't do ambiguity. As she made clear in her writings and lectures, unsureness is weakness.

An English teacher whom I respected greatly pulled me aside to discuss Rand at the end of one school day. She told me that she too had been enamored of the philosophy and its absolute clarity, down to personal relationships. By the time she got to the you'll-outgrow-it remarks, I was very irritated. I had found what was true and what worked. She clearly had aged badly and was now weak.

A great benefit from Randism for a high-school student is the clarity of interpersonal dealings. A dated several girls who were into the same books and ideas. Each joined me in the theater of the ideas. I got to play the heroic, manly anti-collectivist guy. They were strong with others, would debate me, but in the end yielded to my masculinity. It was sweet all around, particularly as other teens foundered in insecurity in ill-defined relationships. Randism flourishes where it can override and eliminate ambiguity.

In college, I met grad students who came to Randism late in life. I even interviewed a group (let's not say collective) of them as a Radicals for Capitalism "club," replete with a silly dollar-sign flag. They were sort of sad and not a little comical. It is far better to come into this at 15 and then outgrow or refine it rather than become a true believer as an adult.

While I think I moved beyond all that, they made it clear they retained access to truth while surrounded by moral weaklings. For me, I think of an example of a folk song my friend Joel Blumert used to sing in the basement club, Leon's, in North Plainfield, New Jersey. Mitch Greenhill's Won't You Tell Me includes:
I'm just trying, momma
I'm just trying, momma
Trying, trying to be a man
You can have it, if you understand
My Randist self first heard those lyrics and knew immediately that they were cowardly and unmanly. I was positive that we make our own way, our own selves.

I came over years, as my mother did, to see as plainly that life is not that simple or absolute. Sometimes happenstance, good or bad luck and the intervention of others determines how you fare. That's where that nasty ambiguity intrudes, make you reevaluate and adjust. You're still in charge, sort of.

I have a lot of differences with libertarians and specifically Randists. Yet, I have this history and have felt the related extremely powerful emotions that I conflated with pure reason. I would neither denigrate them nor underestimate them.

The most annoying trait of Randists is one you can hear in public question periods and debates, particularly in colleges. They are wont to interrupt a speaker, even one answering their questions, to pick what seems to others as the smallest nit. The concept is that if a single statement, premise in their lingo, is wrong, then the entire position or argument is totally worthless. In contrast, those who can deal better with ambiguity and complexity can assess an entire argument to decide its merit in its entirety.

Those are vastly different ways of reasoning. That makes compromise and agreement nearly impossible.

Those who have never felt the strong tug of the Randist gravitational field can be taken aback by such absolutism. Yet, in the least, be aware that there are many such in think tanks, government service and political parties — libertarian of course, but also Republican.

Greenspan was not the only Randist in a powerful position, just the most powerful of them. You can have your Greenspan, while I stick with Greenhill.

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Anonymous said...

I was introduced to Rand in High School by an ardent devotee. But I had an opposite reaction. I was physically repelled by the self congratulatory selfishness, the worship of self, the contempt for the “weak.” But worse was the assertion that any act not rooted in self-interest was in an odd way immoral. Altruism on any level was an unforgivable sin and sign of weakness—a sign that the sinner deserved the righteous punishment of the clear-eyed and superior.

Instead I found my inspiration in high school in tales of the underdog—Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath;” Dos Pasos’ “USA Trilogy;” Arthur Weinberg’s biography of Clarence Darrow, “Attorney for the Damned;” Ray Ginger’s portrait of Eugene V. Debs,
“The Bending Cross.” I devoured George Bernard Shaw—who surely had ego problems of his own—and the Fabian Socialism of his plays.

I guess I was always just a bleeding heart.

Unknown said...

That is a lot to write about someone without quoting or stating any of her ideas. I encourage people to read Ayn Rand's works if they want to find out about this controversial writer who is still hotly debated long after her death.