I never wanted to turn my blog into an Ayn-Rand-bashing site, but it seems to have worked out that way. Today I decided to get it all out of my system and then move on to other, more constructive topics.
The inspiration for this post was some email correspondence I've been having with a friend of mine who seems to still accept a good deal of Rand's Objectivist philosophy. In this debate I found myself getting a little frustrated, and finally figured out why. It wasn't just the specific questions under discussion; it was the whole idea of having to take Ayn Rand seriously again.
I then unloaded on Rand, her philosophy, and her movement in a perhaps ill-advised but nonetheless immensely satisfying blast of emailed invective. And having inflicted this tirade on my pal, I opt now to share it (slightly edited for clarity and brevity) with the world, or whatever small portion of it happens to drop by this blog.
After this, I promise to desist in all things anti-Rand, and think only happy thoughts. : )
My friend had asked why I insisted on bringing the discussion back to Rand when we ought to focus on the specifics of our intellectual disagreement. This was a perfectly valid question, and in considering it, I came up with this answer:
Here is one reason why I tend to revert to talking about Rand. Somehow our whole discussion puts me back into the world of the Ayn Rand discussion group we both belonged to in the 1980s. At the time, as I began to have doubts about Objectivism (Rand's philosophy and movement), I thought of myself as somewhat "peculiar" because I wasn't accepting the ideas that were being put forward so self-confidently all around me.
But when I look back on those ideas, here is what I see:
Atlas Shrugged is great literature. Selfishness is good, altruism and self-sacrifice are evil. There is no God or anything miraculous or supernatural. Unregulated capitalism is the ideal. Ayn Rand was the greatest thinker since Aristotle. The heroes of Rand's novels are realistic role models. A person should never have an irrational emotion. Faith is evil. America is headed toward a Nazi-style dictatorship. Kant is the most evil man in history. Popular culture is uniformly without merit. A couple should have children only if they have the proper, rational reasons to do so. The environmental movement is anti-life. Ronald Reagan was a terrible president because he was religious. We should drop nuclear bombs preemptively on our enemies (a position reiterated a year or two ago by Rand's heir, Leonard Peikoff, on The O'Reilly Factor, prompting O'Reilly, no pacifist, to blurt out, "Who are you - Dr. Strangelove?!"), the 19th century was a Golden Age, all drugs should be legalized, all roads should be privately owned, Social Security and Medicare should be abolished, the FDA is immoral, taxation should be ended and the government should rely on voluntary contributions, health inspections at restaurants are a violation of individual rights ...
This was the intellectual atmosphere I breathed, back in the '80s. And unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled!
There's not a single one of the above ideas that strikes me as valid today, and most strike me as downright perverse. And I think the great majority of my fellow humans would agree in finding most or all of the above notions perverse and wrong. Of course, truth is not a matter of opinion surveys, but when I look back, I wonder how I could possibly have regarded myself as "strange" or "weird" for finding fault with doctrines that would be rejected by 90% of my fellow men and women.
And the answer is: Objectivism is a cult. And when a person is in a cult, the cult's dogmas start to seem self-evident and obvious, because the dogmas are perpetually reinforced. It becomes nearly impossible to break out. And when a member does start to break free, he feels guilty - because he is abandoning the only worldview he knows.
I've done some reading on cults since I left Objectivism, and the shoe fits. Indeed, how could any well-educated person believe all or most of the above ideas, and others like them, without being psychologically manipulated to some degree?
So this is my roundabout way of saying that if I keep referring to Rand and her ideas, it's because this conversation tends to provoke "flashbacks" in me - flashbacks to those days when Rand's ideas were my intellectual environment.
And I must admit, I grow weary of reliving my years as an Objectivist. Those were, I think, largely wasted years, as any years in a cult must be. The reason I attack Rand in my blog and on my Web site, even though it is probably not in my economic interest to do so, is that I would like to prevent at least a few people from making the mistakes I made. Like those who have gotten out of Scientology and then create Web sites to criticize it, I'm trying to get across the message (in my own small way) that Ayn Rand can be hazardous to one's health - or at least to one's intellectual, emotional, and personal growth.
No doubt there are some Objectivist propositions that can be defended, just as there are probably some propositions advanced by Scientology or est or the Unification Church that can be defended. But I look at the total package, not isolated tidbits. And I look at what this movement does to people - mostly young people. People like Ellen Plasil, sexually abused by her Objectivist psychiatrist (she wrote about it in her book Therapist). People like a young Objectivist I knew who had a college education and an obviously high IQ and was working as a dishwasher in a diner because, well, what could he hope to accomplish in this "irrational society"? People who were put "on trial" in Ayn Rand's apartment back in the '60s, or who broke with their familes because Objectivism convinced them that their relatives were "evil."
I remember once arguing with a devout Objectivist and being highly critical of Leonard Peikoff. The Objectivist became very upset and sputtered that I had to stop saying bad things about Peikoff because ... because ... "It's just bad stuff!"
That's how I view Objectivism now. It's just bad stuff.
I wish I could be more dispassionate about it, but at some point I think of Ayn Rand reducing a young girl to tears because of some alleged "irrationality" she had commited, and the next day the girl, a promising ballerina, gave up her career in shame (a story recounted in Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult) ... and whoops, there goes my dispasionate analysis, and I am back to thinking of Ayn Rand as a sociopath or a sadist or a borderline personality (the kindest diagnosis), and her megalomaniacal pseudo-philosophy as a patchwork of rationalizations constructed to con the young by using their own idealism against them.
Okay. That's what I wrote. And that, my friends, is that.
Time to come up with new and pleasant posts about, oh, I don't know, kittens and puppies and rainbows.