June 22nd, 2004


Why I'm not an Objectivist

If I were to publish a list of the books that had an influence on me, to the point where I've either bought copies to have around, bought copies to inflict them on friends, or both, I'd have to list Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and now The Fountainhead, which I'm currently reading. The books make some important points, but the underlying philosophy of Objectivism has always bothered me. It's not just the militant atheism, though as a Catholic that obviously doesn't work for me, but the elitism that make Objectivism seem entirely too much like the Bolshevik/Leninist strain of Communism that Rand fled Russia to get away from - or the mirror image of political liberalism as it's practiced these days by entirely too many people.

One common and very dissonant thread running through Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead is the utter distaste the protagonists and the villains have for the average man and woman, who are regarded as mindless peasants who can't appreciate the finer things in life and in fact will do their best to destroy those fine things and fine people at every opportunity, usually by following the lead of whatever villain Rand provides. This distaste comes even though many of the protagonists are self-made men who came from undistinguished blue-collar or other middle-class backgrounds (I will not use "bourgeois" and "proletarian"!) and through their innate talent and hard work rose to become the heroes and heroines of Rand's novels.

Given her background, I can understand why Rand saw the world like this and decided to bitterly oppose those intellectuals who thought that socialism (and its extreme forms of Naziism and Communism) were all that modern man deserved. However, why Americans who didn't have their roots in the Russian Civil War would follow her line puzzles me. Our history - and our signature literature, science fiction - is by and large a celebration of the average men and women who rose to the occasion and became heroes. The legend of Cincinnatus used to be widely taught, and I daresay most people these days would agree with the moral of the story - especially since it was imitated rather obviously by George Washington, who could quite easily have become the first American king but instead became our first President and a legend.

Rand denies that Cincinnatus or his heirs could exist in America, or anywhere in the world. She makes the same mistake as her mortal enemy Vladimir Ilich Lenin: she thinks that only the talented tenth, the elites of society matter, and the rest of the people are somehow disposable and useless. For an author to have this kind of opinion is bad enough, but for a philosopher to preach this requires an ignorance of the actual workings of capitalism almost as immense as Rand's championing of the extreme libertarian version of that system. How can anyone take seriously the hidden village of John Galt and his followers that we're shown in Atlas Shrugged? It might be possible if Galt and his followers had packed robots into the valley to do all the menial labor, but the notion that all the labor needed to set up an oilfield and refinery could be done by one man is just ridiculous. I'm not a petroleum engineer, but you don't have to be to see the lack of logic in that scene.

Last but not least, Objectivism denies something that I believe is as fundamental to a human society as a belief in God - loyalty. Dagny Taggart may be physically beautiful, and her philosophy may be Objectivist to the core, but her treatment of the utterly loyal and supportive Eddie Willers is criminal. Loyalty from the bottom up is important, but loyalty from the top down even more so - and so far I haven't seen a protagonist in any of Rand's novels that's got it. Without it, they are precisely the monsters their enemies accuse them of being, and I'm not willing to pattern my life on a disloyal monster's.

Well, how about that?

Looks like I'm going to be doing a couple of panels at this year's CONvergence - the "Community and Fandom" panel on Sunday from 11 AM to noon, and "A History of Anime" from 12:30-1:30...which is going to screw up the ops shift I volunteered for. Maybe I can get that switched to Friday. Meanwhile, I'm doing Theater Nippon on Saturday morning from 7 AM to noon, doing about 3-4 hours in the consuite on Friday and Saturday nights, and helping set up on Thursday night. Going to be a busy weekend, even without the room party.