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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

thoughts from a parasite

I discovered from randomly looking at a Livejournal that an acquaintance of mine is an Ayn Rand fan.

Really, don't people get over Ayn Rand by the time they graduate high school?

As my literate audience well knows, Ms. Rand essentially argued that individual humans must act out of self interest and self interest alone, altruism, empathy and compassion are weaknesses, and everthing good in our world was created by great men (Ms. Rand has a reputation for feminism, certainly in her later years, but it's interesting how hung up she is on "Great Men", makes me think of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy") whose grand ambitions are constantly threatened by their less talented inferiors, "the parasites" ie the rest of us. Her most famous novel, about a supernaturally brilliant architect who decides that he's not going to play by the parasites' rules anymore is called Atlas Shrugged. An allusion of course, to the mythical titan, who held the world on his shoulders. Ms. Rand believes that it is the Great Men who suffer the terrible burden of making our world work and that instead of worrying about anybody else, they need to pursue their own dreams, unchained by such primitive, parasitic, moral notions as compassion etc.

What a bunch of arrogant, delusional garbage. It's not "Great Men" who keep our world going, it's everybody else. It's the people who grow the crops, manufacture the goods, and sweep the streets. It's auto mechanics and housewives, it's nurses and teachers and data entry clerks. It's all of us. Rand was a big believer in personal responsibility and accountability. I am too, except I think the entire human race needs to stand as one, we've got to be responsible to our planet and to each other, because most of us don't have "genius" or "greatness", mostly what we've got is each other.

"Great Men" on the other hand, as far as I can tell, seem to be the ones causing most of the trouble.

I get why Rand felt the way she did, she grew up in Soviet Russia, which would inspire a strong appreciation for capitalism in anyone. But really, it takes a special kind of person to look around at a society dominated by secret police, gulags, show trials, mass starvations and exterminations, and conclude "You know what the problem is around here? Too much compassion!"

Lennin and Stalin we're Great Men too.

What's so insidious about her ideas is that they're rooted in very good ideas, very American ideas that I like a lot: individual freedom, persona responsibility, free enterprise. But those ideals are not inconsistent with the ideals of compassion, altruism and wanting to make the world a better place, and only an extremist would say that they were. Just as the Bolsheviks perverted (and pretty much flat out ignored) the noble ideals of socialism, that the hungry would be fed, that everyone who worked hard would be rewarded, Rand and her Objectivists pervert the ideals of capitalism and democracy. One could argue, with much less bloodshed, but considering how influential her ideas are with the people running the show in Washington these days, I'm not convinced of that...

Extremists always prevent us with a false choice: individual freedom or concern for one's fellow men and women, as if those ideas are by nature irreconcilable. There can be only one! Where the hell does this idea come from? But extremists of course, are all the same, I don't think Objectivism (and to be more expansive, I'll call it for my purposes right wing libertarianism) and Communism are all that different at all. They're both doctrines of moral and intellectual tyranny.

Of course, free enterprise and capitalism can exist side by side with a progressive social welfare state, Western Europe proves that, and even though it can veer to far towards certain extremes eg this whole thing with French kids rioting for the right to never be fired ever, for the most part it works, despite a hell of a lot of well financed propaganda on this side of the Atlantic. It works here too, this country would be a much worse place if it were not for the enduring (but constantly threatened) legacy of the New Deal.

Right wing libertarians are constantly singing the praises of "freedom" but they seem to care very little about the idea of expanding freedom for those who have traditionally been denied it. They treat "freedom" as if it were a concrete, quantifiable object. They act like they're afraid that the more freedom someone else gets, the less they will have. But freedom perpetuates itself. It's the true rising tide that lifts all boats.

The right wing libertarian tells us "If you're starving because you can't make it in the marketplace, it's your own fault and no one owes you anything." The Communist says "If you're starving, you must become a servant of the State and be taken care of that way." The social democrat says: "Your barriers can be removed and you can get the help you need, if you're willing to work for it." Creating opportunity expands freedom, not diminishes it.

FDR (Rand's sworn nemesis) crystalized it all with his "Four Freedoms" speech: Freedom of Speech and Worship, the traditional American ideals of limited government, but also Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Freedom and social equality simply cannot exist without each other. You cannot have liberte without egalite and fraternite.

I'll let FDR's truest heir, Barack close this out, an excerpt from his 2004 Convention Magnum Opus:

"John Kerry believes in America. And he knows that it's not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we're all connected as one people.

If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief, I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one."

Believe it or not there's a bit more to say on this topic, but hopefully I will go back to being funny with the next post.

NOTE: There are a number of errors above, contradicting any reputation for nigh infallibility I might ever cultivate.

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Replies: 9 comments

Iron-what now?

Oh, and Paul, the Stalin is a great man thing was irony, a literary device you may have employed from time to time as a cartoonist. And I think all things told, he was even a tad worse then our current chief executive...

Regarding FDR, I don't think freedom to and from are in opposition. We need to be free FROM oppression for example. I've seen poverty, I've seen what it does to people, people who are indeed willing to work their asses off and don't get a break. It's every bit as oppressive as any other form of tyranny.

Right regarding protagonists, sorry.

Oh, yeah. And I didn't read Rand in high school, so I couldn't have gotten over her then. I read her in college. Late college.

Of course, my smarter brother, listened to The Fountainhead on tape when he was 11. Or something ridiculously precocious like that.

Okay, my problem is with FDR's Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

Rand says it in Fountainhead. You can have freedom TO something or you can have freedom FROM something.

I'll take the freedom TO (to work my ass off, so I can earn enough money to not want food or a roof over my head), thank you very much.

And Stalin? Great man? The guy killed (well, by ordering their deaths) more people than Hitler. Man, don't talk about freedom and include the communist version of GW Bush.

The we're.

The FOUNTAINHEAD was about Howard Roark, superawesome architect who could do everything better than everything else. He passionately raped the tall, skinny, blond capitalist woman who respected and loved only him despite marrying two other losers first. ATLAS SHRUGGED started with Henry Rearden of REardon Steel being admired by another tall, blond, skinny, capitalist who wore gray suits and again was overtaken sexually by all the lead awesome capitalists, including John Galt. Who is John Galt?

I think she managed to flee the suddenly communist Russia and spent time in Chicago before heading out to LA. I know people who live by these books and do not regard them as fiction.

Lennin and Stalin we're Great Men too.

Proving how much of a great man I'm not, two typos in this one sentence. Can you spot them?

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