Friday, November 19, 2010

Unpacking Ayn Rand

It's weird to think about it, but I've been haunting the internet for a long time--about twenty years if we count the time that my then-friend Mang (it got so I didn't see him so much sophomore year, and later I'd heard he pretty much disowned me when he found out I was pledging a fraternity) showed me some tricks with the email, where to ftp a few naughty pictures and local urban legends, and some especially nerdy ways to waste time--it puts me approximately in the Precambrian era of its evolution, just before AOL exploded the place with a diversity of lusers. A minor, sporadic and unnoticed spook I was then (and am now), but it was a long enough stretch for me to have eyeballed a few types, observe them, get bored by them, and still here they fucking are. One of these long-established members of the internet prickarazzi is the Objectivist (close! but this guy's too astute), the serious spouter of Ayn Rand's claptrap, typically a pustule-faced nineteen-year-old Rush fan, but also trending toward those unlovable middle-age stiffs who'd manage to be excitable and passionless at the same time, whatever humor generally veering to the nasty sort, the sorts of people who had unshakable theoretical views of human behavior, and whom you'd pray would never, ever have any kids. (And of course that's not fair, because even here I'm remembering "libertarian" types more clearly than "objectivists." The Randites were narrower and stupider.) Or that's how I grew to picture them anyway, while the characters who later evolved to pick on John Galt (or at a minimum, pick on his prose), enjoyed a mental picture that included a healthy laugh and a charming joi de vivre. In the meat world, most people seem to separate their beliefs from their lives, reserving philosophical passion for the rare times those worlds happen to intersect: it's turned out that either of these groups of people are indistinguishable from my officemates.

I am embarrassed to come back to all this pseudo-philosophy as much as I do. It's sort of like being annoyed as an adult about Dr. Seuss's inaccurate grasp of physics and biology. (An elephant bird? You don't transfer genes by just sitting on an egg! And for that matter how did that tree hold Horton up, Ted? Answer me that one!) I never went so that far down as to believe in "rational self interest," but it's the sort of idea that I associate with those formative times. Being surrounded by other baby engineers was part of it, but our freshman experience was more about playing tennis, computer games, and endless rounds of Asshole, and, hard as this is to believe, never getting laid. To fill out the requisite dormroom bullshitting, I was forced to go online. I don't want to offer the impression that most engineers are so closed-minded, and there remain an abundance of people on the other side of the screen who aren't antisocial kooks, but bright, arrogant and immature? All I'm saying is that I know the type.

I've read far more about Ayn Rand than I've read anything she wrote. And the anecdote doesn't lead up to a review of Atlas Shrugged even now. Still don't have the stomach for that one. No, I'm reading Matt Taibbi's Griftopia (good for a tangential post or two before the review), and it's a kick to read someone introducing Rand and the world of objectivism to newbies with appropriate contempt. It's a critique addressed to an audience insufficiently geeky, or composed of the wrong sort of geek, an audience lucky enough to have never inadvertantly let this crap suffuse anything in their thinking lives before Taibbi told them about it.

Here's Matt, quoting:

Rand's rhetorical strategy was to create the impression of depth through overwhelming verbal quanitity, battering the reader with a relentless barrage of meaningless literary curlicues. Take this bit from Galt's famous speech in Atlas Shrugged:
Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over the act of perceiving it, which is thinking--that the mind is one's only judge of values and one's only guide of action--that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise--that a concession to the irrational invalidates one's consciousness and turns it from teh task of perceiving to the task of faking reality--that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind--that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one's consciousness.

If you're sane, you skimmed that, and depending on what you're looking for, you might have come away with (a) that an external reality is important and is independent of belief, or (b) some unsettling bullshit about the infallibility of the rational mind. The former seems a reasonable-ish philosophical view, but the latter seems like a disturbing justification for something or other. Taibbi goes on to sum up the whole deal in four bullet points:
  1. Facts are facts: things can be absolutely right or absolutely wrong, as determined by reason.
  2. According to my reasoning, I am absolutely right.
  3. Charity is immoral.
  4. Pay for your own fucking schools.

I love Matt Taibbi.

Once you account for the hyperbole, this is not really so far from the Wikipedia entry (and if Wiki's going to represent anything more thoroughly and charitably than Star Wars, it's Ayn friggin' Rand). I look at the promulgation of "objective reality," and I worry. Why, that's not so much different from my own struggled-at epistemology! The one which I can't get myself to shut the fuck up about. I wouldn't go so far as to call "facts" unassailable, but on the question of whether there is a universe separated from our consciousness by our senses, then I have to agree that there is. I guess it's classified generally as a materialist viewpoint, a label to which Rand felt herself above, to the extent she acknowledged the history of the art at all. But objectivist philosophy seems to fall apart going forward from that. Details of knowing probably matter, but as a bottom line, I contend that knowledge of the world should, as a necessary minimum, not violate evidence. Objective reality taken as the-universe-is-the-universe (of which we are part, and not above) is something I get behind, and have blathered about. Getting down, however, toward such derivative concepts as facts-is-facts and existence-exists, well that now seems confuse subjective and objective realities (and is also conveniently circular), regardless of how the Randies prefer to organize their labels. How, after all, do you judge something a fact?

My favorite summary joke about Ayn Rand (and I've mentioned this before) comes from Matt Ruff's book, Sewer, Gas and Electric (a near-future romp from ten years ago--I thought about re-reading it recently, but I wasn't in the mood to find humor in some of his structural gags). It features a pocket-sized Rand advising characters, and while Ruff mocks her, he does so fondly. He'd been a regular at rec.arts.sf.written, so maybe given that early internet environment, that's not completely surprising. In any case, my favorite quote still makes me laugh for its capsule perfection:
"'Ayn' rhymes with 'sane'?"

"Rhymes with 'mine'."
My observations are that while objectivism looks evidence-based, it carefully limits the allowable evidence and then goes even further and supports its ideas with elaborate and boring fiction. It looks like it pushes a certain logical amorality, but it instead constructs a morality that is whatever the fuck creepy Ayn says it is. I like a focus on the value of inductive reasoning, but it appears to not think very hard about induction, to the point where assertion of "facts" is enough to support their validity. It is a "philosophy" that tells people that they're indeed exceptional and limited by a globe-full of littlebrains, which strikes me as more than a little dangerous. My long-standing impression, never disproven, is that objectivism is to real philosophy like scientology is to real cognitive science. No coincidence it rose to a similar sort of cult.

My general feeling is that as basis of reason, objectivism is comically underripe. I may be philosophically impaired, but I'm smart enough to catch on to what's the kiddie material. Digging around, I found some excellent critiques. Here's popular blogger Incertus worrying about the inevitable hangers-on now that Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, with his copy of The Virtue of Selfishness under his arm, has pretty well fucked the whole place up. It's a good post, but I am hesitant about damning a philosophy just because the resulting movement was comprised of the worst sorts of assholes. That hardly seems exceptional. I also want to be careful about dismissing Rand on the basis of her wretched personal life, or of her turgid writing style (even though it's so very, very tempting to do this; I also want to be careful about confusing Taibbi's felicity for truth, although I admit I'm still riding on some ideas of humor and power). Her scholarship has been accused as, um, lacking, which I take as a serious accusation, although I don't really know if philosophy is enough like physical science to say that violating established thinking requires extraordinary evidence, but the contrarian approach doesn't strike me as a likely road to honest investigation. Here's a guy named Rob Bass dissecting the epistemology, and outlines the appeal and concerns better than I just did. I like this dude--he makes clear and interesting arguments in comfortable modern language, and he appears be coming from a similar direction, uncovering similar questions, as I have been over the last several years. I will try to remember to follow up with his papers. (Does Rob want to rock right now? I was curious enough to do a where-are-they-now search, and both he and Gary Merrill (the guy from the previous link) are in the UNC academic system these days, and good for them. Is the fact that these posts are 1993-vintage Usenet material also revealing of my formative experiences? It's not out of the question.)

I entertain cautious apologies on behalf of Rand because I still haven't made myself read the doorstops, and that fact limits any substantive arguments I might raise against them, even though I find the objections quite convincing. Ordinarily, what with the limited lifespan and all, it'd be sufficient to weed out those bad ideas, but Ayn Rand has somehow managed to be important. I have read that even beyond her cultish band of followers, she grew into a more influential sort of quackery back in the 1950s, the results of which have helped fuck the country over for at least another half-century. You can imagine how people with money and power may have felt to consider that their self-interest was virtuous.

If there's more evidence needed of objectivism as philosophical juvenilia, then there's always the fact that so many of those college kids grew out of it. I mentioned Rush, but Neal Peart never claimed inspiration deeper than a damned short story, hasn't gone down that road in his lyrics since he was 23 or so, and even back then he wrote about relationships, youthfulness, fantasy books, anti-authoritarianism, and balancing logic with compassion as much as he wrote about anything else. It's good to grow up: one thing you realize is that there's nothing wrong with empathy, that the world outside your experience is every bit as valid as the one between your ears. I can see the appeal of allegedly objective realith and intellectual isolation, especially when you're young and bright and dorky--lots of engineers are also capable--at least they were before colleges capitalized so heavily on the game--and anyone fucking around on the message boards before ca. 1990 had an independent streak--so maybe it's reasonable that my proxy bullshitting sessions were biased this way. But the most damning thing about objectivism is that objective reality has pretty well proven Ayn Rand's philosophy to be a collossal disaster, isn't that right Mr. Greenspan? Can we let the damn thing go now?


MichaelRyerson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MichaelRyerson said...

I often had the sense that when Donald Rumsfeld was holding one of his dismissive, 'I've-got-more-important-things-to-be-doing' press conferences, he was reading directly from notes he'd cribbed from 'The Fountainhead'. I had a friend force a copy of 'Atlas' into my hands (this would have been about 1970ish) with the admonition to 'Read this! It's good stuff!' I read it, although after about the first fifty pages I don't know why. I held it against him for twenty years. I still bring it up from time to time when I'm feeling the need to be cruel.

(reposted with corrections to grade school parallelism)

9:17 AM

Keifus said...

Good on you to give him shit. That's what friends are for.

You know, sometimes it seems like we're tyrannized by youth. Not just our own, but all together we're stuck learning the same thing over and over again...