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The Great Ghastly Ayn Rand

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<a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/244381/greatly-ghastly-rand-jason-lee-steorts?page=1&sms_ss=twitter">The National Review article of the same name.</a> (I do hate the word 'eponymous')

Some of you might recall that National Review published one of the most historically significant reviews of Atlas Shrugged in 1957. <a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/222482/big-sister-watching-you/flashback">Here it is.</a> It was written by one Whittaker Chambers, a former Marxist, turned religious believer (great turnaround, huh?)

It's said that perhaps Mr. Chambers hadn't even read the whole book. <a href="http://blogcritics.org/books/article/ayn-rand-vs-whittaker-chambers-and/">This</a> is only one response to Mr. Chambers's review, explaining many of its deficits.

National Review's history of trying to silence the message promulgated by Rand is astonishing. It is ironic that 'Conservatism' has had its most memorable champions in Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan - both of whom publicly adopted a political philosophy closer to that of Rand's than that of Chambers's. (Reagan's policies and politics aside, recall that he went from 8 points behind Jimmy Carter to 10 ahead because of their single, 1980, debate. Look it up on Youtube. Among other things he talks about why the minimum wage is bad. In other words, without defending Reagan's presidency, I can draw conclusions about the message that I attribute to his election and popularity)

It is also ironic that Ayn Rand's politics aren't far removed from the norm throughout most of American history leading up to the 1930's.

Today, with the resurgence of interest in Atlas Shrugged I suppose that National Review feels that they need to silence Miss Rand once again.

I plan on hand-writing a letter to the NR offices in response to this article, and will post the text in this thread when I am done (I will not claim to be anything more than a fan of Miss Rand's). I think NR lately has shown some promise, particularly with Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism as well as NR's stance in opposition to the neoconservative likes of Weekly Standard during the last election cycle.

I have to conclude that this was a hit job, and intentionally so. But I will still try to appeal to what sound minds might be over there.

Although I will post my letter here later, I do want to mention the one point that disturbs me the most in the hit job.

The author finds his biggest complaint against Rand in her 'killing' of a train full of people 'including innocents' as they pass through the mountain tunnel. The author presumptuously concludes that Rand is taking upon herself the role of God in condemning and disposing of these people.

That couldn't be further from the truth and betrays his biggest intellectual handicap. The fact is that Miss Rand absolutely refuses to pass judgment of the sort he is describing.

The author's religious mentality has constrained him to judge human action based on a subjective standard of good and evil as set forth and judged by God. Without God's presence on the Earth, that standard and its fulfillment are the responsibility of men. Whether of their own invention, or through interpretation of revelation, man is the subjective judge when the matter is one of sin and righteousness.

Ayn Rand refuses to take God's responsibility in this matter. She in no way judges the people on the train to be good or evil according to a standard of sin and righteousness. Rather, the 'evil' of the people is judged only by the objective consequences of their choices. And the punishment doled out is not Miss Rand's, but reality's. Ayn Rand did not condemn them, they were doomed by the facts, and their refusal to acknowledge them. To say Ayn Rand 'condemned' them to death, is to say that she wished for their death. On the contrary, her heroes are tireless advocates for reason and responsibility. Ayn Rand's message was a cry, in the name of the innocent, for society to embrace reality. The tunnel was her warning.

I would not wish National Review ill, I would hope that with their exposure, they would lead a more wholesome intellectual course. And otherwise, I am happy to let them to themselves and their own pursuits.

But, just as Kip Chalmers demanded that the train defy reality, against all the facts, one might worry that National Review, by doing the same, will lead Conservatism to a dark dark place. Will they deserve it? Yes. Am I the depraved judge to say so?

Rather, I'd think the force behind reality, their beloved Creator, would have much more to do with it.

Edited by ZSorenson
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I do love the new review. I am greatly amused at the lengths he went to switch Ayn Rand's definitions of ego around. It was almost like he wanted the cake (i.e., a socially acceptable set of heroes), and yet felt a strong desire of eating it at the same time (i.e., getting the same message which, as can be seen, most of society has trouble swallowing). Lovely!

Also, for extra laughs, I noticed there is a big advertisement for a specially made commerative John Galt/Atlas coin on the side of the article. Looks like the NR has deversified the ways it makes money off of Ayn Rand's corpse. Coins for the fans, hatchet jobs for the enemies. Truly we are dealing with a principled and respectable institution here.

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This is what I have produced. I haven't sent it, am debating whether I should, and whether it merits the additional care and effort of hand writing or not.

Please keep in mind that I am considering my audience (National Review), and sort of make quite a few rhetorical concessions (presuming the existence of God as I discuss him). I don't believe in God, but I also don't think what I have written necessarily implies that. My point is that while I support the essence of my argument, please do not hold the rhetoric against me. Although, that makes me a poor Objectivist writer, I suppose.

Also, I realize I am advocating for a spirit/matter dichotomy. I don't. But a theist, by implication, must. I can't ignore that fact, and have decided that it is politically prudent to ask a theist to treat the dichotomy objectively. I think this is okay, because the conceptual essence of the theist's 'transcendence' is something I attribute to an epistemologically correct conclusion about man's identity. This is worthy of another topic, though perhaps will fit into a thread about conservatism. Basically, I think that man's concept of self - spiritual self - i.e.: the sort of virtues he must possess in order that he might obtain certain values - is necessarily open-ended. In other words, your virtues are specifically related to the values you haven't yet obtained that you might obtain. An integrated self requires that which is not 'known'. I speak, of course, from the 'conservative' point of view here.

I've read good Objectivist commentary that criticizes conservatives for labelling all secular knowledge as 'a priori' when of course Ayn Rand's contribution to philosophy was integration. Thus conservatives automatically view Ayn Rand in a category to which she doesn't belong. Fine. My point in this letter is to encourage them to learn that, ultimately. First, they must be willing to actually - you know - read the whole book. So my rhetoric appeals to the dichotomy they have created for the world. My conclusion is that the full realzation of self is (well obviously) a personal affair, so it can't include the state. That's why any sort of concept of 'divine justice' has no place in a discussion about men judging other men.

Or, there is a dichotomy, between the defined and the potential, but identity is the integration of the two, not existing as one or the other.

"Dear Editors,

I am writing you concerning the recent article you have published entitiled “The Great Ghastly Ayn Rand”. I do not expect that I am the only one. As a result, my comments will be rather limited in scope.

My main concern is that Mr. Steorts, with his main concern about Atlas Shrugged, is missing the point. I don’t want to belabor the debate over his specific argument, though I must address it; instead I wish to make clear why I think that a certain incorrect premise is what led Mr. Steorts to his conclusion. While I believe that this premise is definitive of contemporary conservative, I don't think it is essential to it. In other words, I’m worried that the best conservatism has to offer could be squandered if it cannot adapt to new ideas. I think, with Ayn Rand, it has retrenched itself against the advance of knowledge. I also think that conservatism needn’t betray itself or its fundamental core values in order to integrate itself with many of the core ideas advocated by Ayn Rand. That is why I am concerned with National Review’s stance against Ayn Rand, given that it has traditionally represented a youthful and adaptive (not compromising) conservatism.

To the point: Mr. Steorts’s main concern with Atlas Shrugged seems well represented in the train tunnel ‘gas chamber’ he discusses at length in his article. I am certain that this argument is familiar to you - but the problem with Mr. Steorts’s analysis is that he attributes to Ayn Rand a status of moral omnipotence, he places her in shoes he reserves for God, when the foundational premise - metaphysically - of her entire philosophy was in diametric opposition to any man taking this role. His mistaken premise is that the divine standard of justice is equivalent to the societal, or ‘earthly’ standard. This is conservatism's error as well.

You know how liberals get mad at believers who say that sinners will go to hell? They say that these believers’ opinion is hateful, and that the believers themselves are moral bigots. Do you agree with that? I would think that you would not. This is because there are two standard: one of divine justice, and one of worldly justice. The divine pertains to man’s soul, the afterlife, and the transcendent. The worldy pertains to Creation, reality, reason.

I would also guess that Mr. Steorts would not agree that he is conflating the two standards. But that is what he has done in condemning Ayn Rand. Yes, as the author she put those people to death. But, when she did so she was not applying any divine standard of judgment.

Ayn Rand wanted the world to know that you can’t cheat reality, and that reality is objective. Nowhere in this vision is a place for transcendent moral ‘oughts’, so to speak. When the mother tucks in her children who later die along with her in the train crash, never does Rand ask if the human heart could bear such a tragedy. Her whole point is: reality will bear such a tragedy, and the tragedy occured explicitly because the victims would not bear reality. If you take the message of the novel in its entirety, you will see a desperate, vicious, crying plea for people to accept reality, and for them to not think that they can will or ‘faith’ themselves a better world. The tragedy of this train crash, and of its victims is that they did deserve it. They deserved it in a worldly sense, it was ‘what they had coming’. And it is tragic because no standard of divine justice could alter that reality. The tragedy occurred despite what goodness or evil was in their souls. Their choices and actions and personal insistence on preserving their worldview led to their deaths. They would not give up their premises, and no man or God condemned them: only the facts. If Ayn Rand was vicious to these people, than it was as much because of God rather than in spite of Him. For what will God do for man that he, within his ability, will not do for himself?

Put another way: was it God who condemened those that might have drowned in the New Orleans floods following Hurricane Katrina? Was he perhaps judging them for foolishly living below sea level in a stormy clime? I don't think but only the most fringe of pastors would claim as much. More so, they might blame the tragedy on some unnamed sinfulness. Instead, the vast majority of thinking adults - clergy included - would acknowledge that while any given storm is hard to predict, it is probably a bad idea to live in a place that is so sensitive to them. Has not National Review spoken out against rebuilding here, when we've already seen the consequences? And ask yourself this: am I more sympathetic as an advocate against rebuilding if the future inhabitants are ignorant masses, or if they are the very souls who initiate and insist upon the rebuilding effort. I said I wouldn't belabor the debate, but I must say: if Ayn Rand didn't viciously codemn those in the train wreck for their views, if she had forgiven them, she'd essentially be excusing their worldview, and would be an accessory to their deaths. Again, note the difference between divine forgiveness, and worldy apathy. The only conclusion I can draw is that Ayn Rand accepts the fundamental, basic worth of the human soul (divine or not), which is particularly why she so harshly condemns those who treat it as a thing of nought. I digress.

Let me now ask: was there never an Aquinas? Was it not St. Augustine who quipped that man should act one way and pray another? And that leads me to my point. Ayn Rand’s message to the political world is that any institution of justice with dominion over men must apply a standard of justice proper to man: a worldly standard. It is wrong for one man to apply - and I refer to force (leaving aside intellectual judgment) - a standard of divine justice upon another. A man cannot punish another man for being evil. He can punish him for causing demonstrable harm.

I maintain that God’s dominion is over man’s soul, and his heart. I maintain that divine justice is a matter resolved between God and individual souls. This does not preclude the possibility of intermediaries - rather it suggests that they lose legitimacy as intermediaries the moment they exercise force. I maintain that justice in society is man’s means of dealing with other men. That is all. And the standard common to men, sinner and saint, is worldy, and factual.

This is fundamentally American. Is there an element of deism in American political religion? Yes! There is. In politics is the secular man qualified to make these conclusions? I can only respond by asking: was Galileo qualified to make the conclusions he did? Was Copernicus qualified to determine the true nature of the solar system? The church, in that instance, deemed no. But it has learned, perhaps, that that is not the sort of judgment it is charged with passing.

Which is why I believe that National Review needs to change its position on Ayn Rand fast. Science has eroded in many ways the traditional place of religion in society. But I don’t know any responsible conservatives that reject science. Ayn Rand is a rare practitioner of the science of ethics, and of philosophy. This does not make her view completely or even mostly correct, depending on your analysis. But it does mean that her ideas contribute to the base of human knowledge. Two evidences that she has done so legitimately are first: what I have said about societal justice being the province of reason and men - that perspective came to me through her writings - and second: the vast influence and popularity of her ideas.

I only mean to say that Ayn Rand’s ideas are important. They are worth learning and understanding if not accepting. But Mr. Steorts’s re-review does National Review’s readers the immense disservice of discouraging them from even pursuing those ideas. By not even reading all the way through (yes, I know he had once prior) for the sake of a review, Mr. Steorts immediately labels Ayn Rand as ‘not worth even trying’. What an affront to human knowledge!

As I have said, I believe he has done so because he - and I worry that National Review in general shares this position - does not wish for Ayn Rand’s ideas to gain any traction. I believe that the reason why he feels this way follows the same reasoning he uses in trying to discredit those ideas. Namely: that societal justice must reflect divine justice. Ayn Rand merely asked, ‘what if it needn’t?’ Because otherwise the argument is conceded to the liberals.

They might propose a program that doesn’t work. But it means to work, and is therefore just. I think Mr. Goldberg has beautifully explained why conservatives should be uneasy about Pragmatism. Liberals might propose radical changes based on secular philosophies that don’t reflect divine will. But we’re not all the same religion, so what is divine will anyway? Ayn Rand said: ‘you’re missing the point’.

Recently, I read in The Corner about how America is a statistical outlier in terms of being both wealthy and relatively religious. I would venture that this is precisely because America’s political tradition has recognized that God’s role is outside, above, and beyond that system and its justice. I would also venture, from the evidence, that if God is the Creator, then that is how he intended it.

Ayn Rand is among the most prominent thinkers to advocate a system of justice for human society that relies on what man is, in the world. It needn’t be called secular, because it intentionally doesn’t address man’s divine purpose. It is a system that regulates the interactions of men based on facts. Period. This is also the same sort of system envisioned by the founders. They left a common purpose, divine even, to the king to establish in his society. For themselves, they chose a society that let each man to his own divine destiny, to pursue it as he saw fit to establish between himself and the Lord. And how can God judge man otherwise? In that sense, maybe Ayn Rand is one of the biggest advocates for divine justice, as well.

But perhaps she doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Is that what one gets for irking Bill Buckley? Too bad her followers are dogmatic, immature, tribalists indeed. And my sarcasm is deliberate. From his prose, I feel that Mr. Steorts must be smarter than what his arguments imply. I sense deliberate misdirection. That is shameful, if true. Conservatives have to ask themselves if the ends justify the means. And depending on the answer, they must decide which direction they will take their conservatism.


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