At The New Republic, Jonathan Chait reviews two new books about Ayn Rand — Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller. Via Burns and Heller, Chait’s review nails Randism and the Randbots who still worship at her altar. Just a snip:
When Rand condemned a piece of literature, art, or music (she favored Romantic Russian melodies from her youth and detested Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms), her followers adopted the judgment. Since Rand disliked facial hair, her admirers went clean-shaven. When she bought a new dining room table, several of them rushed to find the same model for themselves.
Chait calls Rand’s ideas “inverted Marxism.” He notes the degree to which her novels “oddly mirrored the Socialist Realist style, with two-dimensional characters serving as ideological props.” Like Marxism, Rand’s Objectivism “failed for the same reason that communism failed: it tried to make its people live by the dictates of a totalizing ideology that failed to honor the realities of human existence.”
Yes, Rand hated Marxism, and her ideas were relentlessly reactionary to Marxism. But because Rand’s life and work were shaped entirely by reaction, she was never really free from the things she opposed. Marxism still ruled and defined her, even as she imagined herself liberated from it. Hers was an utter failure to find equanimity.
Anyway, the larger point of both books is the degree to which Rand’s unbalanced ideas still haunt our political discourse. In particular, we are hobbled by the idea “that the United States is divided into two classes–the hard-working productive elite, and the indolent masses leeching off their labor by means of confiscatory taxes and transfer programs.”
(An aside: Culturally, IMO there is something profoundly un-American about Randism. Although we’ve always had our Calvinistic undercurrents, through most of American popular culture since the age of Andrew Jackson our national mythos was about the triumph of common men — yes, usually men — over the inbred, indolent elite. Americans may have admired George Washington, but we identified with Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Huckleberry Finn. Our ur-myth was about the savvy, weather-beaten cowpoke who proves to be a better man than the wealthy, educated city slicker. Now our ur-myth is about winning American Idol.
But notice how the once-admired cowpoke has been replaced by the likes of Joe the Plumber, a man plucked from obscurity not because of his weather-beaten independence but for his usefulness to the elite cause. Wurzelbacher became a pet of the elite because he embodies their sterotypes of a working man while parroting their worldview. In truth, he is close to being a white Step’n Fetchit.)
Chait’s review goes on to demolish most of the assumptions on which Randism is based, particularly the myth of the “self-made man” and the belief that wealthy people are wealthy because they work harder than poor people and therefore are more deserving.
Now, the part that intrigues me is the way so many obviously ordinary, poorly educated and un-affluent Americans have somehow bought into this nonsense. Think of the people presented in the video in the previous post. There is nothing “elite” about this crew. In large part, the rank-and-file of the tea partiers are from the “indolent masses” so devalued by Randbots. IMO what we’re seeing here are two different social-political pathologies finding common ground in opposing progressivism.
The tea-partiers also are locked inside an ideology that says some people are more deserving than others. But in their world “deserving” is not defined by wealth and status, but by race and culture. This is discussed by Michael Lind in “Uninsured Like Me.” See also, Glenn Greenwald’s “Who are the undeserving “others” benefiting from expanded government actions?”
What’s beneath wingnut hysteria is not just racial hatred but a sense of racial/nativist entitlement. They are obsessed with the idea that progressivism means taking something away from them and giving it to people who are undeserving (i.e., not white, especially not native-born white).
Having come from a working-class white background myself, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in my life who were neither wealthy nor especially industrious, and who were invested with the usual number of faults and moral weaknesses, but who saw themselves as being uncommonly hard-working and virtuous because they were white people with jobs. Such people deny their own vulnerabilities — economic catastrophe couldn’t happen to them — and somehow identify with the self-interests of people who are far more wealthy and insulated than they are. Hence, working people without health insurance somehow are persuaded to oppose health care reform.
(Sign at Saturday’s 9/12 demonstration: “I work hard so Obama voters don’t have to.”)
Odds are that some minority of Saturday’s 9/12 crowd have no health insurance themselves. They are, in effect, choosing to do without decent health care for themselves than to share a benefit with the Other. They are disproportionately and irrationally obsessed with the issue of illegal immigrants getting a taxpayer-funded benefit, and they would rather sacrifice cost-effectiveness than begrudge so much as an aspirin to a migrant worker. As I wrote recently, we Americans are spiting ourselves to death.
So the Randbots and the 9/12ers view the world in different ways, but they’ve come together in lunatic solidarity nonetheless.
This toxic compound is all the more dangerous because it is funded by powerful corporate and media elites. Hendrik Hertzberg writes,
This sort of lunatic paranoiaâ€”touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualismâ€”has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment. What is different now is the evolution of a new political organism, with paranoia as its animating principle. The town-meeting shouters may be the organismâ€™s hands and feet, but its heartâ€”also, Heaven help us, its brainâ€”is a â€œconservativeâ€ media alliance built around talk radio and cable television, especially Fox News. The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hatefulâ€”they all routinely liken the President and the â€œDemocrat Partyâ€ to murderous totalitariansâ€”but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organismâ€”the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness. Many Republican officeholders, even some reputed moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, have obediently echoed the foul nonsense.
Our national forefathers vowed to create “a more perfect Union,” but we have never really overcome the divisions of race and class that have plagued us from the beginning. I’d like to close by pointing out that Canada is at least as racially diverse as the U.S., yet Canadians seem able to govern themselves sanely. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Malloy argues that what makes the difference between the U.S. and Canada is that the two nations are operating under different national myths. “Canadians, who have a highly fragile and internationally ignored national identity, understand instinctively that health care says a lot about a country’s heart and its understanding of itself,” Malloy writes.
I fear our country’s heart is a cold one, and if it’s heart doesn’t warm up soon the U.S. is destined for a long and steep decline.