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Food for Thought #17: Just Deserts

As this blog bore deeper into the plot of Atlas Shrugged and the election drew closer, the commentary and analysis half of the site became more and more about American politics and less about the implications of Rand’s philosophy for individuals. Now that the election and the book are over and the blog is winding down, the time has come to revisit that angle.

The first thing to say is that I genuinely feel I’ve learned a lot by reading this book, particularly the first time in 2008. As somebody who came of age during the late-era Clinton and especially George W. Bush presidencies, I felt pretty comfortable in my liberalism and reflexively suspicious of big business.  So despite the fact that Ayn Rand is a political fundamentalist and in all likelihood a high-functioning sociopath, her views did force me to reconsider the moral merits of libertarianism and private enterprise, to review my existing assumptions with a more critical eye.

On top of Atlas’ contribution to the evolution of my values, Ayn’s emphatic declarations of her own rigor and the book’s meticulous didacticism in general helped me step my intellectual game up. I’m no credentialed scholar or anything, but following my first pass in 2008 I felt especially unprepared to counter her arguments and hunted down essays and papers on Kant and Aristotle to better understand the issues at hand and why Ayn considered herself a genius and mainstream academia considers her a self-evident crackpot.

With that foundation I felt much more capable of dissecting her absurdity this time around, but I still used the book as a launching pad for my own education by reading about a dozen titles on history, current affairs, and political philosophy. This fed back into my interpretation of the book, as I fleshed out the ways the Objectiverse has to be tweaked to truly fit reality — by positing climate change as vital context for the book’s global crisis; by fleshing out Rand’s caricature of the political system to incorporate modern lobbying and campaign finance; by highlighting Rand’s opposition to excessive consumerism, and her embrace of local food, clean energy, and sustainable communities; and most of all, by downplaying Rand’s dogmatic faith in plutocratic capitalism and the wealthy’s sense of entitlement.

This alternate perspective on the story became harder and harder to apply as the book went further down the rabbit hole of Objectivism. The relevance of my interpretation probably peaked during the chapters set in Galt’s Gulch. but went downhill by the middle of Part Three such that by the time we reached Galt’s Speech I was basically aping  Ayn’s style to better write my own polemical screed arguing against her’s (which is to say, Galt’s).

So let me at least credit Rand for inspiring me to conduct my own life differently, not primarily on the level of political belief but on the level of personal bearing.

There’s no real way of avoiding the fact that people who describe themselves as Objectivists, or who actively promote Rand as valuable on her own terms, are pretty uniformly insufferable assholes. If you accept her views as written, that attitude is kind of baked into the cake. After all, Objectivism as written is no more or less than a wholesale excuse and unqualified justification for being an asshole.

But divorced from her insane condemnation of empathy, and taking into account the way she confuses being a rhetorical steamroller with being actually logically rigorous, there’s something admirable in her work. If I had to pinpoint it I’d describe it as her portrait of masculinity.

Yes, Ayn’s reverence for and attraction to that sort of old-school, traditional masculinity is what I consider to be the primary value of the book. Even Dagny, as a proto-feminist archetype, is admired in large part for embodying traditionally masculine virtues. Her femininity is always mentioned in the form of a single symbol or token in the midst of her otherwise masculine bearing, be it the curve of her legs, the rMetal bracelet, the cut of her dress… the silent, burning desire to be sexually dominated by every alpha male in the novel. You know, stuff like that.

It might seem like this is an awfully narrow line of credit I’m extending, but I don’t mean to belittle it. The stoicism of Rand’s heroes (even Francisco, who is certainly extroverted but strictly disciplined about sharing his true self with others), and Ayn’s insistence on self-reliance, on the charisma of competence… these are virtues that I feel I should aspire to more than I did back when I first read the book as an impressionable young progressive. It was through this realization of how I could improve myself that I came to be more appreciative of conservative and Republican ideals, particularly the whole “personal responsibility” element, and this in turn played no small part in my increased respect for and understanding of business. I feel this development from the personal to the political is far more organic than what Ayn actually argues for, which really strikes me as a Frankenstein’s monster of contradicting beliefs.

So thanks, Ayn Rand, for offering up so much food for thought. Maybe someday I’ll even read The Fountainhead, next time I’m in the mood for some literary sado-masochism. For now though, I’ll at least admit this: You aren’t just a poison on America’s body politic or a philosophical cancer. I found some real nourishment when I sampled your buffet. Some of the side dishes actually taste good. I might even recommend your establishment to friends with a refined palate. Maybe. Probably not.  Let’s put it this way — I recommend the lighter fare. But whatever you do, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

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