As you will no doubt be glad to hear, I am pretty much done with my coverage of the Ayn Rand-Ed Hickman story. But since I had a little free time today, I checked out an online discussion prompted by my blog posts on this subject. Usually I don't venture into online forums, because the atmosphere is often toxic, and the arguments are frequently little better than exchanges of insults. I was happy to see that the discussion on the SOLO (Sense of Life Objectivists) forum was different. It was civil, intelligent, and interesting - albeit regrettably brief.
Some of the comments deserve a reply, which I'll give here, on the off-chance that any of the forum participants happen to stop by.
One member wrote of Ayn Rand:
She was, many Objectivists need to remind themselves, human. A very intelligent human, admirable in some ways, but not infallible, not a goddess of reason, not even psychologically healthy at times.
I think this is a fair and reasonable assessment, and I agree that Objectivists would do well to keep it in mind.
Another member wrote,
Well, the Ayn Rand I know and love would never hold a child murderer up as an actual hero. She was merely looking beyond the criminal and the social outrage to his crimes. She was seeing other motives and drives. She was seeing further than one normally sees in these cases.
There is a hidden assumption here, namely that Ayn Rand was able to see "further than one normally sees in these cases," an assumption that equates to the proposition "Ayn Rand was a great genius." I disagree with this premise, and thus with the argument that follows from it. Objectivists often seem to take it as self-evident that Rand was one of history's greatest minds, and then assume that anything she said must be justifiable somehow, and that any criticism of her views is motivated by "hatred of the good for being the good" (an Objectivist trope). They rarely consider an alternate possibility - that some of us honestly don't think Rand was a genius or a hero, and that our criticism is motivated by simple disagreement with a position we regard as bizarre and insupportable.
He goes on,
Now what is Prescott's purpose here? It is obviously to imply that Ayn Rand supported murdering children and other abominable crimes (and by further implication, that her philosophy is one of ax-murderers). Believe it or not, that is it. Read his piece and you can see this jump out of almost any paragraph. Ayn Rand the apologist of serial killing and mutilating children.
No, I don't think I said that Rand "supported murdering children." I do think that her admiration for a psychotic killer calls into question both her judgment and her emotional health. I don't think she was "seeing further." She was seeing wrong.
I also didn't say that Rand's "philosophy is one of ax-murderers." However, I will say this: It is at least possible that the view of human nature embodied in Rand's fictional heroes and enshrined in her philosophy may tend to encourage antisocial, even sociopathic tendencies in some of the more impressionable people who are exposed to it. Note that I said some, not all.
Those who doubt this possibility might want to consider the fact that Howard Roark's decisive demonstration of his individualism comes when he blows up an unoccupied housing project. One of the major set-pieces of Atlas Shrugged is a railway disaster in which the narrator tells us, in no uncertain terms, that an entire trainload of passengers are guilty of philosophical errors and therefore deserve what they get (namely, a horrible death). Atlas's triumphant ending consists of the heroes - a handful of superior humans - celebrating their victory over the altruistic-collectivistic society they left behind, while millions of not-so-superior people are dying, or have already died, in the famine and chaos of a disintegrating country.
There is a thread running from Rand's journal entries about Hickman, through The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged - the common theme that the superior man may do what he likes, even if it entails violence and destruction (blowing up a building), or even mass death (Atlas), because he is not bound by law and morality in the way that the average person is. And this viewpoint is, at least, compatible with the grandiosity and narcissism of the sociopathic personality.
The writer continues,
Why do people do this crap [i.e., write essays like this]? I guess that makes them feel cool or righteous or scratch some itch to be a great thinker when they are not. Maybe Prescott was trying to see further than others and be a genius too and just didn't have too much to look at. Who knows?
Again, we have the "genius" premise coming into play. The assumption is that Rand was "a great thinker" who can (again) "see further than others" and was "a genius." On this premise, anyone who attacks such obvious greatness and brilliance must have some nefarious motive. But since I reject the premise that Rand was a great thinker (etc.), I reject all the inferences that flow from it.
I don't think one has to be a genius to refute Ayn Rand's ideas; such refutations are easily found on the Web, for instance on Michael Huemer's site, and in books by Nyquist, Ryan, Robbins, O'Neill, and Ellis, and in this collection of critical essays. I don't agree with every argument made by every one of these writers, but all of them make at least some valuable points that show the flaws in Objectivism. Probably none of them is a "genius" (sorry, guys), but one doesn't have to be a genius to cut through the fallacies in Rand's poorly conceived arguments.
In a later post, the same writer has some nice things to say about yours truly:
He [Prescott] certainly does not come off to me as a dastardly villain - he sounds intelligent and like he deeply cares about people. He does his research. And this thing to me seems more like a misfire than outright hostility to Rand's ideas.
I appreciate the kind words and the decency and civility of this statement - qualities that are often sadly absent from online forums. In all honesty, though, I must say that I do feel "outright hostility to Rand's ideas." I think she has been, for the most part, a destructive influence in the lives of people who try to live by her philosophy. I am not saying she intended to be a destructive influence, simply that she (or her worldview) has had that effect. And there are countless testimonials on the Web from ex-Objectivists to back up this claim, including my own. Interested readers can find even more examples in Jeff Walker's book.
Well, I think that's it for the saga of William Edward Hickman. Now it's back to other, more contemporary issues. Like, how about that Michael Jackson, huh? One hundred percent not guilty! And here I thought the guy was a twisted, child-molesting, sexually confused, surgically mutilated freak ...
Just goes to show how very wrong I can be.