Monday, August 27, 2007

Fascist schmacist

Greetings, RandZapper fans! Yes, it's been a while. Frankly, RandZapper has grown bored with the blood sport of trolling Google Groups in search of idiotic comments by Ayn Rand smoochers. There are only so many variations on the basically stupid, sometimes genocidal, occasionally racist remarks spouted by these undereducated intellectual wannabes.

Recently, however, we did find one promising thread entitled Fascism and Objectivism. It begins,

I have noted that there has been, at various times, a charge of fascism leveled against Objectivism, or particular Objectivists, including Ayn Rand herself. Could someone here explain to me what they feel is the source of such accusations? Even if you disagree, you must have some idea of what part of the philosophy or Ayn Rand's writings inspire such charges?
Christopher Roberson takes up the challenge in fine fettle:
I can think of three likely targets:

1. Her hectoring intellectual style. Calling people who disagree with you "irrational" and "thugs" is not very endearing. This is not political fascism, of course.

2. Her heroes are almost all tall, blue-eyed Nordic types; her villains are generally pudgy, fussy, dark-haired little men. For decades, the latter was a common stereotype that allowed writers to hint that the villain was a Jew. Rand, of course, was Jewish herself, so at most she can be accused of being a self-hating Jew, if that.

3. Her aesthetics are pretty much identical to Fascist aesthetics. I'm referring to the sort of art that was idealized by the Fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi government in Germany. They both had pronounced affinities for Romanticism.

There are three reasons for you, none of them political.

Appalled by this outbreak of honesty, Dean hastens to reassert the Objectivist orthodoxy:
This is an age of extensive moral relativism and subjectivism. Ayn Rand said (and proved) that we can be objective and certain, in all areas of knowledge. She did not hesitate to apply that principle to moral evaluation in particular. To relativists and subjectivists, claims to objectivity and certainty regarding how people ought to think and act, and how they ought to be evaluated, sound like authoritarianism....
Get that, people? We can be objective and certain in ALL areas of knowledge. Rand PROVED this.


Next, Mike weighs in:

The problem began with Rand's "indirect" means of characterization in her novels, giving heroes as archetypes rather than as folks dealing with their own self-doubts, moments of cowardice as well as those of courage. This combined with her lack of empathy for the numerous villains she uncovered in real life, giving her attitude towards those she disagreed with a sense of self-righteousness, of "you are wrong and I have no better solution to give," that is fundamental to fascism. This was not her attitude, in the main, but ...
Hold on. It wasn't?
As her movement progressed, she became consumed with the idea of creating a New Order, where folks thought the right thoughts and behaved the right way. Books were rated as to how closely they were "Objectivist." Reading the "wrong" material was discouraged unless one's stated purpose was to "integrate" it with the truths Rand discovered--i.e., reading for new knowledge from the wrong people, knowledge that could upset the prevailing system of ideas, was actively discouraged. "Loaded" language was used, so that "selfishness" or "rational" or "capitalism" acquired new meanings, the better to inculcate Objectivists with the idea that they had inherited a Special Truth unknown to others. People who disagreed with her were excommunicated. People who were in doubt were given "philosophic therapy" by Branden, with her active approval. The notion of a New World Order fashioned by a charismatic leader who supposedly has no inner doubts as he or she tinkers with the lives of others--that is all compatible with the idea of a Fascist society.
Absolutely true, and well stated.
Rand's actual *ideas* lay almost buried beneath the insults bandied back and forth. Happily, they are always available to the person interested in picking up her books and willing to put forth the energy to read between the lines.
Sigh. Mike, Mike, Mike, you had us, then you lost us.

Rand's "actual ideas" are entirely consistent with her narcissistic, authoritarian, intolerant, petulant, judgmental, tyrannical behavior.

Still, you were making good sense there for a while.

The discussion then gets sidetracked into an argument about whether Rand's heroes were really "almost all tall, blue-eyed Nordic types." Someone brings up Francisco D'Anconia as a counterexample. Someone else deftly pulls up this quote from the Bible - er, excuse us, we meant Atlas Shrugged.

Nobody described [Francisco's] appearance as Latin, yet the word applied to him, not in its present, but in its original sense, not pertaining to Spain, but to ancient Rome...His features had the fine precision of sculpture. His hair was black and straight, swept back. The suntan of his skin intensified the startling color of his eyes: they were a pure, clear blue.
"I guess he's as un-Latin as you can get, for a Latin dude," the poster remarks churlishly - and accurately.

Dean, who apparently can be counted on to spew Randian boilerplate on demand, gives his two cents:

By induction, Rand had no particular fixation on Nordic heroes. [RandZapper loves "by induction." It sounds so darn philosophical.] Roark, by name and red hair, was implicitly of Irish extraction. D'Anconia was decidedly of Mediterranean extraction. We can grant you Rearden and Ragnar, but not as some concession toward a faulty identification. [What in Galt's name does that mean?] ...

The description of Galt provided earlier in rebuttal to your hasty imputation describes an obviously non-Nordic physical type. If anything, Rand's description is in line with making him a new and perfect kind. Being a real person, he had to have some specific appearance. But Rand pointedly made him _not_ physically or ethnically specific. His character was man the ideal type. She symbolized this by making his appearance _not_ suggest anything specific to what we are familiar with already. She chose to portray him as _not_ a Nordic (or any other) instance of man.

There is much weirdness in this comment, but above all note the admission that Galt, Rand's portrait of the human ideal par excellence, bears no relation to any recognizable kind of human being.

Someone politely challenges Dean to back up his earlier statement that Rand proved that we can be objective and certain in all areas of life:

Hey, Dean, I'm wondering if you would do me a favor? Would you provide a cite (small or large, I'll do what it takes) where Ayn Rand *proves* stuff like this.
While we hold our breath awaiting Dean's response (which never comes), let's read excerpts from a series of posts by Matt Ruff. He makes a number of dazzle shots:
Rand's description of James is interesting: "He looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth. He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout..."

It's as if Rand were saying that James, as Nat Taggart's son, was genetically predisposed -- "intended" -- to be a right-thinking capitalist (i.e., an attractive man), but he blew it, and now nature has retaliated by robbing him of his good looks. By the way, his eyes aren't blue. They are "pale and veiled." Socialist ideas, it seems, can affect even the tint of one's irises...

I can think of a fourth [reason for seeing Randism as fascistic]: the apocalyptic/messianic theme of "Atlas Shrugged." The rational individualists don't just triumph in the end, they triumph *utterly* -- the implication is that most of the evil collectivists will be destroyed in the final collapse of civilization, and those who survive are so weakened and so scattered that they'll pose no problem when the individualists return to rebuild. As Galt says in his speech: "Those who choose to join us, will join us; those who don't, will not have the power to stop us; hordes of savages have never been an obstacle to men who carried the banner of the mind." ... [This quote] sounds like a rallying cry for a pogrom....

Rand's actual beliefs were markedly different from those of Christian fundamentalists. Her *way of believing*, however, was quite similar -- i.e., she believed that she was in possession of the absolute truth, that this was obvious to any reasonably intelligent person, and that therefore anyone who persisted in disagreeing with her after hearing her arguments was exhibiting bad faith.

Chris Roberson, annoyed by the obsessive search for Randian characters who don't match his generalization in every detail, blurts out:
Christ almighty, the nits you people pick.

No, not ALL her villains match anti-Semitic stereotypes. Some do, though, and quite noticeably. Pointing out that some of them lack some of the stereotypical features does not constitute a refutation of my claim.

And not ALL her heroes are Aryan types. But most are. Even the multi-cultural mix of heroes in _Atlas Shrugged_ have pretty much the same set of features, with minor details thrown in here & there to differentiate them, much like the actors on soap operas.

It may be going too far to call the cast of Atlas "multicultural," but of course, the absence of blacks, Asians, native Americans, etc., may be more symptomatic of 1950s culture in general than of anything in Rand's psyche. (Then again, wasn't AR supposed to be the kind of world-historical, once-in-a-millennium genius who could transcend the limitations of her culture?)

Matt Ruff again:

If it makes you feel any better, Chris, I think your point is more or less accurate as well: in "Atlas Shrugged," physical beauty correlates very strongly to moral worth. I see the same parallel to anti-Semitic propaganda that you do. No, Rand is not explicitly racist (the occasional stray comment about green-toothed Arabs excepted) but I do get the sense reading her character descriptions that good and evil are largely intrinsic qualities, and that with a few very minor exceptions, her heroes and villains are locked into their roles at birth. If that's true--if villains are villains by nature, and cannot be "cured" or reformed, then the only thing to do is root them out and destroy them. And if everyone who disagrees with Rand's philosophy is a villain...

[T]hey definitely are stereotypes of the kind used to justify totalitarian/fascist policies. Maybe what's leading you astray here is the fact that historically, fascist propaganda did (and still does) often make use of anti-Semitic themes. But even if it didn't, it would still be fascist propaganda. Scapegoating people for their political or philosophical beliefs is no better than scapegoating them for their ethnic or religious background.

Iván Ordóñez finds fault with "Rand's archaic, Eurocentric conception of physical beauty."

Prompting a certain John - not Galt, we presume - to respond in full snark mode:

Oh yah, those horrible Europeans that brought us logic, science, Renaissance art, scientific engineering and the rights of man. Gee, what a travesty that they ever existed. We need jungle savages and strange mystical rituals!
Ah, jungle savages. Like nukes and Hitler, sooner or later they will inevitably make an appearance in a Randian thread.

Jim Klein quotes the above paragraph and goes for the jugular:

This would seem to confirm Ivan's charge, in view of the facts a) that you attribute "logic, science, Renaissance art, scientific engineering and the rights of man" exclusively to Europeans, a rather far-fetched claim at best; and b) you loosely imply that there are two sorts of folks in the world---Europeans and jungle savages.

I wonder...upon consideration, would you choose to reword that comment? If so, I think you ought to. If not, why not?

In his rebuttal John demonstrates his encyclopedic grasp of history:
Art [was found in other cultures], yes, but the art wasn't on the scale of renaissance art. Science, logic and scientific engineering definitely not. These were exclusive to the West and the *reason* the West rose as it did.
Let's unpack this, shall we? Non-Western art is not on the scale of Renaissance art? So the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica were smaller than St. Peter's Cathedral? Or does he mean non-Western art is not as good? Well, that's debatable, surely.

How about science, logic, and scientific engineering? Exclusive to the West, did he say? Has he ever heard of the Great Wall of China (it's hard to miss; you can see it from outer space) or, again, the pyramids? Or the massive engineering projects carried out by the Inca, Aztec, Olmec, and Maya? How about the invention of gunpowder, the written word, and the number zero? How about ...

Oh, never mind.

Luckily, Chris Roberson jumps into the fray to make the obvious (but necessary) points. Here's his little dialogue with John.

John: I use the term "jungle savages" because the ideas of these cultures are precisely what multiculturialists [sic] like to raise up as if they are equal to the West. African studies are supposed to be on a par with Western studies.

Chris: So by "jungle savages" you mean Africans? (Does anyone else see the implications of that phrase starting to surface here?) ... I'm really not following your argument. There are jungles in Africa, but they don't cover much of the continent. The vast majority of Africans have never seen a jungle. And many of the cultures in Africa have been literate for a very long time.

John: I don't know what your point is by this, surely you realize I'll blow you out of the water if you want to actually delve in depth into a specific culture and then try to compare it with the West. Or maybe you aren't, which would be pretty sad. [This reminds RandZapper of David Ramsey Steele's observation, cited often on the ARCHN blog: "The doctrinal structure of Randism is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics."]

Chris (calling his bluff): Ooo, I'm really shaking now. Sure, let's talk about a specific culture. How about Tokugawa-era Japan? ... Golly, let's see... India? ... Maybe we should talk about African culture, since you mentioned it. Do you mean North African or sub-Saharan African culture? Probably sub-Saharan, since North Africa doesn't have any jungles, and it's been a literate area for millenia. So is it sub-Saharan African culture you want to single out as particularly pathetic in comparison to the West? As my post should indicate, I am not sure exactly what your overall thesis is. Is Western culture better in almost all respects than all others? Or is there some particular aspect of Western culture that stands out? Visual art? Music? Philosophy? Literature? Or all of the above?

John (backing away from his promise to argue specifics and retreating into every Randist's specialty - generalized abuse): I'm sorry that it's going to take *this much* to explain to Christopher. There are certain things I take for granted when I explain any subject. For instance, when I describe how a car works I don't usually think I'm going to have to describe the tensile strength of the metal, or the fact that they are faster than chariots. But, with some people you have to explain *everything*, and this makes for tedious work. Chris is a modern philosopher, which rather explains a lot.

Chris: Oh ha ha. I'll note that your long disquisition that follows doesn't really explain what you mean by 'savagery', which is what I was interested in hearing about.

John (still avoiding specifics): First, Chris has got to look at the big picture. He has to see that the West has done fantastic things on a scale that no other culture has come close to. I think it is a matter of basic honesty to note this.

Chris: Sure, of course the West has done fantastic things on a remarkable scale. ... But I'd also suggest (and I think you'd agree) that the West's most singular achievements have been as a result of its scientific and technological supremacy. Other cultures in the world can easily rival Western achievements in pre-modern art, architecture, music, and organization, to mention only a few categories of cultural achievement. Think of Japanese visual art, the Taj Mahal, Indian classical raga, and the Great Wall of China as representative examples.

John (bullshitting desperately in vague generalities in a futile attempt to disguise his lack of learning): Science and logic had their beginnings in the West. The great art and engineering that followed were in the West. The idea of the rights of man was a Western concept which arose form science and logic, and from the concept of rights rose a division of labor society, and unbelievable levels of wealth and prosperity for everyone, with no end in sight.

Chris (easily seeing through his act): Here's where I think your potted history of Western Civ is a little off. Aristotelian logic had its beginnings in the West, but logic (and even a fair amount of basic science) preceded modern technology by many centuries. It's not clear to me that there was any simple causal connection between the two. Consider, for example, that Arab philosophers and mathematicians were the ones who kept Aristotelian logic alive during the Dark Ages. But the Arabs were not the first to develop modern technology (though of course they did invent the concept of zero & pioneer modern astronomy).

And, uh... the division of labor society was quite far advanced long before the Rights of Man were heard of. I think your causal ascription may be backward, frankly.

John (in full retreat mode and sweating hard): Forget the phrase "jungle savages", because it is *not* the point. [It isn't? RandZapper is confused.] ...

Chris: Well, if the phrase "jungle savages" is not the point, here's a bit of unsolicited advice: try to avoid using it. ... To someone who doesn't know you, well: "jungle savages" sounds pretty straightforwardly racist. And if you don't want to give that impression, which you probably don't, you shouldn't use the term.

Hmm. Yes, really, y'know, if you don't want to come across as an ignorant, closed-minded, atavistic racist, you probably should avoid throwing around terms like "jungle savages." Good point. Funny how the Randians never seem to pick up on it, no matter how many times they are told.

Why, it's almost as if the division of the human race into elites and savages is a fundamental part of their worldview. (Quoth Galt: "Hordes of savages have never been an obstacle to men who carried the banner of the mind.") And since the earth apparently cannot long endure half-rational and half-savage, there must be a solution to the problem posed by the savages. A solution that will end the problem once and for all. A final solution, we might say. Sort of like in the Bible, er, we mean Atlas Shrugged, when the savages die or waste away at the end and only the elites are left to repopulate the world. You can see them coming down from the mountaintop, Rand's tall, classically featured, Eurocentric, white-collar whitebread Ubermenschen, ready to clean out the dross of humanity like Hercules disinfecting the Augean stables, prepared to expunge the earth of all its subhuman filth and build a new, better, dare we say purer world ...

Gosh, why would anyone accuse Rand of fascism? It's a head-scratcher, all right. It's got us beat. It really does.