(King Henry VI part 3, act 2, sc. 2)
Historians have written at length on the ideas that inspired great events. Take the 18th century, for example – when there grew, at large, a diffused sensibility towards nature. In turn, sensibility towards nature spawned sensitivity towards man and led to the idea that all men should have rights, not only the nobles.
Or so said the great reformers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau with the social contract, the Italian Beccaria, promoting the abolition of torture and of the death penalty, Voltaire, encouraging the use of reason and common sense to solve political and religious issues, and Bentham, the apologist of utilitarianism. Meaning that the value of an action is proportional to the number of people who benefit from it.
All these good ideas, (in the still most generally accepted meaning of “good”), were at the root of the American and the French Revolutions That the outcomes of the two revolutions were remarkably different is not the subject of this article.
And the great 19th century Russian writers (and Marx), inspired the first Russian revolution of 1905, and later the October revolution of 1917. Dickens made familiar the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. And Nietzsche is perhaps the most authoritative spiritual father of Nazism.
What are, then, the inspiring ideas of the present – when one country declares herself to be exceptional, hence authorized to rule waves, land and skies in the name of a vague, stretchable, flexible and malleable “democratistic” ideology. An ideology that would prompt laughter, if irony and perception of paradox had not been banned from political thought and media discourse.
There is always some distance between the birth and the maturity of an idea – about 30 to 50 years, when comparing the revolutions of the last three centuries.
But who is the main promoter of the ideas currently put into practice? I found a good answer in a recent article and subsequent research.
The name is Ayn Rand. I heard of Ayn Rand, of course, but the little I knew of her was sufficiently repellent to prevent me from reading any further. Therefore I rely on second-hand information, supported, however, by multiple verifiable sources.
That we do not immediately associate neo-conservatism, neo-liberal ideology, military invasion and occupation of other countries, turbo-capitalism, torture, mass-slaughter, trial-less assassination of presumed enemies, immunity from prosecution for maxi-crimes, etc. with such a relatively obscure name as Ayn Rand, should not surprise. The compilers of the Rights of Man, or of the Declaration of Independence, did not quote Rousseau or Voltaire in their text, though the philosophers’ influence is incontrovertible. It will be up to future historians to read Rand’s (remarkably cheap, when not disgusting) philosophy in the actions and spirit of our times.
“There is a history in all men’s lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceased
The which observed, a man may profesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life…”(1)
Therefore a quick glance at the life of this notorious character, may offer some clues.
Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. She obtained a degree in history at the University of Leningrad in 1924 and formed her ideas and perceptions of America from the Hollywood movies imported into Russia. After moving to America and to Hollywood, she dabbled in playwriting and movie script editing. Eventually she found an editor who published her first novel, “The Fountainhead.”
The protagonist is an architect named Howard Roark, Rand’s embodiment of the ideal man, a “romantic rapist”, an absolute individualist who would ever assert, and never doubt his own convictions.
A group of followers gathered around the author, mostly students eager to impersonate and copy her fictional heroes. Two of them became very important to Alissa Blumenthal (now Ayn Rand). They were another Blumenthal (Nathan) and his wife Barbara Weidman. To the point that Rand and her husband moved to New York to follow her followers. Rand started an affair with Nathan Blumenthal, who was 20 years her junior. Nathan Blumenthal was so taken with Ayn Rand that he decided to incorporate the meme ‘Rand’ into his own name – and Nathan Blumenthal became Nathan Branden.
Ayn Rand persuaded her husband and Branden’s wife to agree to a structured menage-a-trois, or whatever, whereby she and Branden would have one encounter per week. Meantime Rand and Branden had founded some kind of club or think-tank, inadvertently and ironically called the “Collective”.
Sometime later, Branden-Blumenthal grew tired of Ayn Rand, and began to sleep with a married model of 24, Patrecia (not a spelling error) Scott.
Humiliated, Rand put a public curse on Brandon, uttered in front of an audience at the “Collective”, as follows, “If you have one ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health – you will be impotent for the next 20 years! And if you achieve potency sooner, you will know it is a sign of still worse moral degradation.”
Interesting implied definitions of ‘health’ and ‘morality’. As one critic put it, *** “Rand’s personal life was consistent with her philosophy of not giving a shit about anybody but herself.”
Rand has had an extraordinary influence on the minds of latter-day political decision-makers. Therefore we may strike a parallel between Rand’s idea of morality and the current Administration’s consistency of policies. When, in the same week when the degrading report on government-authorized torture was released, the same administration scolded Venezuela about alleged disregard of human rights.
Rand made selfishness heroic, and she made caring about others a weakness. She said, “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible….The choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequences of freedom, justice, progress and man’s happiness on earth—or the primordial morality of altruism, with its consequences of slavery, brute force, stagnant terror and sacrificial furnaces.”
That it is “moral” to care only about oneself, is the essential mode of thought in current politics, starting from Reagan, who was one of her admirers.
Ayn Rand gave lectures titled, “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” A kind of reverse-radicalism, a mirror of the current class-struggle in reverse. Wall Street’s radical mission is to screw everyone screwable.
Rand defined her philosophy as “Objectivism”, a meaningless term, as useful as any to collect sewage-based thought. She taught students of her “Collective” to despise Plato. His Socratic Method of approximating truth via reason was useless.
For Rand, intellectual inconsistency is the mark of a true leader, who is then authorized to disregard (or eliminate) those who employ reason to point-out inconsistency. Those who reason are challenges to authority. Evidence and examples of this mode of thought are too many to number.
Objective reality (hence “Objectivism”), is what Ayn Rand says it is – it includes the most ostentatious trappings of the modern world, skyscrapers, railroads and big things. Self-irony and humor are banned. “Objective reality” excludes Shakespeare, classical music and the great painters – all too depressing. Her preference went to the salacious detective novels by Mickey Spillane and later, to “Charlie’s Angels.” For international readers, Charlie’s Angels was a completely farcical and unbelievable TV series about three beautiful female private investigators. Offering absurd fantasies about female super-power and (for men), titillating fantasies about sleeping with any of the three, or maybe with all three at once.
In the ethics of “objectivism” all altruists are manipulators and there is no distinction between integrity and childish vanity. As a critic observed, “Rand’s integrity was her vanity, and it consisted of getting as much money and control as possible, copulating with whomever she wanted regardless of who would get hurt, and her always being right. To equate one’s selfishness, vanity, and egotism with one’s integrity liberates young people from the struggle to distinguish integrity from selfishness, vanity, and egotism.“ ***
The heroes of her novels are “romantic rapists”, which may give some clues about the problem of recurrent rapes in colleges and in the military, reported but not prosecuted, and more often, unreported because unprosecuted.
Rand was an atheist, “I am against God. I don’t approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness. I regard it as an evil.” However, consistent with her inconsistency, she said, “I am done with the monster of “we,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: “I.”
Again, quoting from the same critic, “Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves. Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.” ***
One of her first celebrity admirers was Alan Greenspan, later chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, who, presumably, applied the principles of “Objectivism” to everyday life.
It would be redundant to cite other current-day politicians or think-tank pundits, who admitted to have been influenced by Ayn Rand’s thoughts. Because, to quote a non-Shakespearean line, the proof is in the pudding.
Torture is consistent with democracy. In fact there is an element of fun (or at least of folklore in it). As Obama said, “Yes, we tortured some folks.” Nor it is inconsistent that the two “psychologists” who wrote and applied the code of torture, earned 81 million dollars of taxpayers’ money for their enterprise. Excellent marriage of business with sadistic pleasure – as advocated by Rand.
Nor it is inconsistent that a subhuman character as Dick Cheney says of torture that “he would do it all over again.” Or that torture was legal because he ordered some lawyers to write a law to legalize it.
Even the adjective “evil” seems almost to lift from the gutter an utterly gutterly character like Cheney. Shakespeare’s evil monsters are at least made memorable by the elegance of words,
“Some devil whispers curses in mine ear,
And prompts me, that my tongue may utter forth
The venomous malice of my swelling heart!”
says Aaron in Titus Andronicus,
whereas Cheney’s favorite retort to anyone who objects to his pronouncements is “Fuck you.”
Besides, Aaron, unlike Cheney, was at least consistent in his evil,
“If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.”
Whereas for the Cheneys of this world, the difference between good and evil is seemingly lost. As it was actually lost for their spiritual inspirer.
But, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Ayn Rand’s declaration that selfishness is a virtue and altruism a vice is contrary to traditional Jewish values.”
Which may be of comfort to some.
(1) King Henry IV, part 2
*** Bruce Levin
In the play. The Prince of The Wales, rightful heir to the throne comments on Warwick’s reasons why Henry VI should abdicate (whereby the Prince of Wales would lose his rights).
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