Thursday, August 26, 2010

Repudiating Whittaker Chambers

......."the logic of events is causing Americans to realize that they do need Ayn Rand's ideas—and they definitely need the projection, in literature, of her heroes' uncompromising determination to fight for their liberty."

TIA Daily August 24, 2010


There They Go Again

Part 1: Repudiating Whittaker Chambers

by Robert Tracinski

A reader just sent me a link, with the explanation: "They're at it again."

And so they are.

"They" is the National Review, the leading publication of the religious wing of the mainstream right. And "it" is bashing Ayn Rand.

There is a long history to this. All the way back in the 1950s, when Ayn Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged—which I have described as "Capitalism's Epic"—was first published, William F. Buckley attempted to kick Ayn Rand out of the right. Her atheism and her ethics of individualism was a threat to Buckley's goal of cobbling together a "fusionist" coalition that would harness the pro-free-market wing of the right to the agenda of the religious traditionalists. He had to get Ayn Rand out of the way, and to add insult to injury, Buckley dispatched an ex-Communist, Whittaker Chambers, to do the job. The result was a sloppy, dishonest hit piece, which I dissected in 2005, when National Review Online decided to reprint the thing.

It was an odd decision on the part of National Review, since I thought the Chambers piece was an embarrassment they ought to bury somewhere down deep in the memory hole. Given the recognized power, ongoing influence, and large audience of Ayn Rand's ideas, why remind people that you stood out against them? At no time would that be more true than today, when the audience for and interest in Atlas Shrugged has peaked in response to the financial crisis and the Obama's administration's lurch toward socialism.

But the folks at National Review have their own agenda to protect, and it is precisely the surge in interest in Ayn Rand that motivates them to strike back at her in self-defense. So National Reviewcover article, by Jason Lee Steorts, does not really reconsider Ayn Rand. It largely repeats the same old line of attack. has once again put Ayn Rand on its cover, with the headline "Ayn Rand Reconsidered." Maybe that's meant to sell more copies on the newsstands...

And yet, there are some differences—which are revealing.

The "dog bites man" part of this story is the hostility expressed toward Ayn Rand, which includes all of the usual smears: that she is "dogmatic," mean-spirited, and "spiteful," that she is a bad writer who wrote "inept dialogue," that her appeal is primarily to adolescents. In service of this last goal, Steorts writes, preposterously, that the unforgettable Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged, comes across witha "Girl Scout banality" and "seems to have escaped from the young-adult section." I don't know what kind of "young adults" books Steorts has been reading, but if there's one thing Dagny Taggart is not, it's a character from a Judy Blume book. This is the kind of smear that itself comes from an adolescent, high-school-clique mindset—the use of ridicule to prey on the target's insecurities. It only works on someone who is eager to prove he is a sophisticated adult by renouncing any interest in the kind of nerdy books the cool kids don't like.

But the "man bites dog" part of the story, the part that made me raise my eyebrows, is that Steorts basically repudiates the central arguments of Whittaker Chambers's old attack on Ayn Rand. In a brief aside in the cover article, he writes: "Chambers's statement that the Randian voice commands 'from painful necessity,' his belief that Rand favors rule by a technocratic elite, and the title of his review, 'Big Sister Is Watching You,' are all, therefore, in error."

In a follow-up article, Steorts addresses the Chambers hit piece directly and at length, and the concessions keep coming. Chambers, he concludes, "does her an injustice." While Chambers claims that Ayn Rand advocated "a forthright philosophic materialism," Steorts admits:

Insofar as I am familiar with her writings and public statements, she had nothing kind to say about materialists. Certainly she rejected much that conventionally accompanies materialism; for example, she believed in the freedom of the will in contradistinction to causal determinism. And a minor theme of Atlas Shrugged is that its heroes, though denounced as materialists, are more capable of enjoying spiritual pleasures ("spiritual" here understood in a non-religious sense—she has in mind the capacity e.g. to love, or to feel profound aesthetic appreciation) than are their denouncers. I think the correct assessment is that Rand rejected any division at all between body and mind, material, and spiritual

And as for Chambers's depiction of Ayn Rand as a quasi-totalitarian "Big Sister," Steorts says, "This simply is not so." Ayn Rand's heroes, he notes, "fight precisely against the idea that any person or persons should be granted Big Brotherly responsibilities." He continues:

It will admittedly be the case, in a free society of freely transacting individuals, that those of superior talent enjoy a greater share of material abundance and influence. This outcome will be, in fact, an organic growth. But it is far from aristocracy, and to wield influence is not to rule. Chambers's elision of these ideas is a surprising piece of sloppiness from so intelligent a writer.

It's amazing what happens when you actually read the book; you notice things like Ayn Rand's crucial distinction between economic and political power. But the "sloppiness" of dropping this differentiation was not out of character for Chambers, which Steorts implicitly admits when he notes that a "quaintly Marxian...invocation of historical inevitability...pops up again and again throughout the review, every time Chambers says, effectively, 'I don't care what she claims to advocate—this is what it must come to in practice (but you'll have to take my word for it).'"

Well then, so much for the old Whittaker Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged!

Steorts cannot restrain himself from bringing some of the old smear back to life, saying that Chambers was right to complain that Ayn Rand had a "dictatorial tone," whatever that means. Then there is this whopper: "I would go so far as to say that Rand, given the chance, might well have been a totalitarian."

"Given the chance"? Ayn Rand lived in Russia during the first decade of Soviet control. Wasn't that opportunity enough?

And yet, the heart of his main article is a genuine introspective report on how Steorts was inspired by reading Ayn Rand's earlier novel, The Fountainhead, when he was younger. He writes about "Rand at her best, which I believe is to be found in the second half of The Fountainhead," and he says this about the struggle of the conflicted character Gail Wynand:

I, too, want mightily for Wynand to hold out. He becomes magnificent, awe-inspiring, in the discovery of his integrity. When he does not hold out—when he betrays Roark rather than close his paper—I feel as I do when I dream I have done something unforgivable. When in his final conversation with Roark—whom he feels too guilty ever to see again, even though, as atonement, he has shut down the paper anyway—he commissions the tallest building in New York, a "monument to that spirit which is yours...and could have been mine," I feel the relief of redemption. There is a passage in which Roark does not know that something he has said has given a passing character "the courage to face a lifetime." Rand's hymn to integrity might achieve the same effect.

This, by the way, is the influence of longstanding efforts to encourage the teaching of The Fountainhead in high-school English courses, where it reaches students before their ideological commitments have hardened and raised their defenses against new ideas. I couldn't find any definitive biographical information on Steorts, but in a comment on a Democratic blog, he was referred to as a "very recent Harvard grad" in 2006—which puts him in just the right age range to have been influenced by this effort. And it does have the effect of softening up his view of Ayn Rand—both the value of her ideas and the value of her literature.

So why the enduring hostility? Atlas Shrugged, he complains, has a sense of cruelty and bitterness in its view of human nature because it focuses so much on its totally unsympathetic villains. Since TIA Daily goes to an audience mostly composed of Ayn Rand fans, I know that you are all now coming up with dozens of counter-examples to refute this obvious misrepresentation. The novel spends an enormous amount of time, even whole sections of the book—the extended flashback to Dagny's childhood, for example, or the scenes in Galt's Gulch—focusing exclusively on its heroes. But that's not the point. Steorts is not reacting to the actual composition of the novel, but to something else. The fact is that he doesn't notice all of the time spent on the heroes of the novel because he does not find them psychologically real and therefore regards them—brace yourselves for this—as uninteresting. He gives us an idea of this in his description of The Fountainhead, where he had the same problem.

In her introduction to its 25th-anniversary printing, she says: "This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man." Yet this man—the architect Howard Roark—turns out to be pretty boring. He rarely speaks. When he does, it is rarely interesting (and when it is, it is transparently didactic). He has no sense of humor. As his enemies try to destroy him, he shows so little emotion that the reader must rely upon an abstract sense of justice in order to give a damn. Howard Roark is a ghost of a protagonist.

Again, the counter-examples are flooding into your mind, but ask instead why Steorts ignores all of the evidence that runs counter to his conclusion. What we are seeing here is the influence of the sense of life of conservatism.

Part 2: Reading with Eyes Wide Shut

by Robert Tracinski

This article is continued from yesterday's edition of TIA Daily.

Steorts is not reacting to the actual composition of Atlas Shrugged, but to something else. The fact is that he doesn't notice all of the time spent on the heroes of the novel because he does not find them psychologically real and therefore regards them—brace yourselves for this—as uninteresting....

What we are seeing here is the influence of the sense of life of conservatism: he is only interested in characters who are imperfect, torn, conflicted. The two characters who "come to life" for him in The Fountainhead are those who represent a "passionate but thwarted idealism. Each is gripped by his conception of the beautiful and the good, but each betrays it without cease, and ironically out of loyalty to it."

In religious terms, conservatives hold a vision of man as "fallen," as inherently corrupted by original sin. The corollary, in psychological terms, is a view of man as inherently flawed, tortured by contradictions which prevent him from reaching the ideal. So a man who does reach the ideal, a man without inner psychological turmoil, is necessarily unrealistic, two-dimensional, uninteresting.

The altruism of the conservatives is also a motive here. In describing Ayn Rand as having a cruel and arrogant approach to the world, he cites her unwillingness to acknowledge the supposed "good intentions" that drive the statists' mad scramble for greater coercive power.

There is no room at all in Atlas Shrugged for the idea that its policymakers are acting on good-hearted but misguided principles. They are parasites, plain and simple, aware of their evil even if they take pains to hide it from themselves (this in fact confirms their awareness), which is why Rand is happy to hurl them all—if I may quote Chambers a final time—into "one undifferentiated damnation."

But the policies of the economic dictators in Atlas Shrugged—and they're not just standard-issue, old-fashioned "liberals"; they're dictators—are only "good-hearted" if one accepts sacrifice as the good, which is what the whole novel argues against.

And then, as a final motive, there is a religious conception of morality. This is why Steorts, like Chambers, is so put off by the Taggart Tunnel disaster that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the novel. He accurately describes the set-up.

A train is carrying 300 passengers through the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco....

The world scarcely has diesel locomotives. When the one attached to that train breaks down, the only replacements are coal-burning, which is a problem, because the train is about to pass through an eight-mile tunnel that is not properly ventilated for locomotives of this type. It happens that an important looter—Rand's term for the half-wits running and ruining the country—is on the train and has strong feelings about getting to San Francisco. His name is Kip Chalmers. "It's not my problem to figure out how you get the train through the tunnel, that's for you to figure out!" Kip Chalmers screams at a station agent. "But if you don't get me an engine and don't start that train, you can kiss good-bye to your jobs, your work permits and this whole goddamn railroad!"

This is persuasive. "The station agent had never heard of Kip Chalmers and did not know the nature of his position. But he knew that this was the day when unknown men in undefined positions held unlimited power—the power of life or death." And so the station officials, knowing that the loss of their jobs means the loss of their lives, call in a coal engine, procure a drunken engineer, and condemn every passenger on the train to death by asphyxiation.

What offends Steorts is the scene just before the train enters the tunnel, as the novel's narration goes cabin-to-cabin, describing how each of the passengers of the train advocated or supported, in some way, the political system that is about to kill them.

This offends Steorts because he see Ayn Rand, as the author of this scene, as being in the role of God—he actually uses that description—and therefore as arbitrarily condemning this train full of sinners to damnation. But this is not Ayn Rand's moral outlook. To understand the tunnel scene, you have to understand an exchange from earlier in the novel. Before Francisco D'Anconia's speech on the meaning of money, a woman at a party asks him a question. Here is the exchange:

"Senor D'Anconia, what do you think is going to happen to the world?"

"Just exactly what it deserves."

"Oh, how cruel!"

"Don't you believe in the operation of the moral law, Madam?" Francisco asked gravely. "I do."

This, by the way, is why the constant insistence that Ayn Rand is a bad writer falls so flat. This is a brilliant piece of dialogue on many different levels. It shows Francisco's skill at the quip and the one-liner. And notice the subtle point about this woman's unspoken assumption: that if the world is going to get what it deserves, it must deserve something bad. The exchange serves to deepen the mystery of Francisco's character: if he is worthless, skirt-chasing playboy, then why is he speaking "gravely" about morality? And beneath all of this, there is a profound point unique to Ayn Rand's philosophy: her conception of moral law.

Moral law, in Ayn Rand's philosophy, is natural law: it is the logical, long-term consequences of one's ideas and actions on one's well-being and survival. The moral law is not someone's arbitrary invention. It is not a code imposed from above by some supernatural being, who is personally in charge of meting out rewards and punishment according to his preferences. Instead, moral law is as inevitable as the laws of physics. It is the law of cause and effect applied to human action.

So when the passengers of the train ride off to their doom, there is in fact no "glee" in the presentation. Ayn Rand's voice as a narrator is always factual and impersonal. And the part of this scene that Steorts finds most objectionable for its insensitivity is actually painfully poignant:

The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don't care, it's only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."

That's the kind of heart-wrenching scene Ayn Rand is so good at writing. She shows us the mother's solicitous care for her children—and how it is undone by her unprincipled support for an evil system. This is not a punishment arbitrarily handed down out of some sense of revenge. Instead, the purpose of this scene is to demonstrate to us "the operation of the moral law," that the evil you advocate or sanction will come back to destroy you. And the purpose of that particular part of the scene is not to spare us from knowledge of the full destructiveness of evil, or the ruthlessness with which it is punished by reality.

But it is reality that does the punishing, by the inexorable logic of events. That's where Steorts gets it wrong. As the author, Ayn Rand is not in the role of God, but in the role of reality. And there is no way for reality to grant exceptions or show compassion. It just is what it is, and there is no one who can bargain or intercede—which is another central point of the novel.

Steorts's interpretation is a natural one if one implicitly views morality as a religious code, in which a deity imposes arbitrary rules that we can't live by. That's why forgiveness, the idea that we will somehow be spared from the consequences of our actions, is so important to religion. If the code can't be followed, if the ideal can't be reached, if we are all sinners—then we need a God (or an author) who grants exceptions out of compassion. That's why Steorts is so fascinated with Wynand: he is the conflicted sinner who can't reach the ideal, who falls short and need to seek redemption. He is the Ayn Rand hero that someone with a religious outlook on morality can identify with.

What is interesting is that all of these assumptions are expressed only on the sense-of-life level; they are not made explicit or really argued for. Thus, Steorts says that he finds Ayn Rand's "evangelistic atheism off-putting in the extreme," which would seem to be a central point—yet the remark is made in passing and he offers no argument against atheism. Combine that with his rejection of all of the central arguments made by Whittaker Chambers, and it becomes clear what is really happening here. The substantive intellectual resistance to Ayn Rand's ideas is melting away—but what is left is a stubborn sense-of-life resistance. The conservatives at National Review can't refute Ayn Rand's ideas, but they can't bring themselves to accept her, either.

This reminded me of an article published a few years back by another conservative associated with National Review, though in this case he was writing in the late, lamented New York Sun. Amid something like a thousand words of wall-to-wall sneering and innuendo, Andrew Stuttaford had only this to say about Ayn Rand's actual ideas:

Her creed of ego and laissez-faire, and the reception it won, was one of the more interesting—and encouraging—cultural phenomena of mid-20th-century America....

Her key insight was to realize that there was an appetite among Americans for a moral case for capitalism. In a restless age that believed in the Big Answer, neither historical tradition nor utilitarian notions of efficiency would suffice. Ayn Rand gave Americans that case, perhaps not the best case, but a case....

[H]er books...played their part in ensuring that the dull orthodoxies of collectivism never prevailed here.

For all of his dishonesty, Whittaker Chambers at least had a central philosophical argument. That's gone, and today's conservatives largely acknowledge that Ayn Rand has been proven right about many things. But they can't bring themselves to depart from a conventional ethics or sense of life—so they pile up the smutty references to her personal life and parrot the fashionable ridicule of her writing style, in an attempt to justify not taking her ideas seriously.

In the article by Steorts, the most telling passage is one on the meaning of the word "ego" in describing Ayn Rand's self-sufficient hero Howard Roark.

Roark is egoless. I realize that's a dirty word in The Fountainhead, but I'm using it in a special sense, one I think Rand could accept. For Rand, "egoless" means self-negating, sacrificing yourself to something or someone else. What I will use it to mean is an absence of self-consciousness about your ego—a self-esteem secure enough that you don't compare yourself with others, a focus on your work complete enough that you don't worry whether it will succeed, a general freedom from thinking of your identity abstractly and trying to justify or glorify it.

So Ayn Rand made a profound point about the real meaning of the self, a point that is revolutionary in philosophy and central to the theme of The Fountainhead—yet Steorts just lets this new idea bounce off of him and casually returns to the conventional usage (or misuse) of the concept.

The overall sense is of someone who reads Ayn Rand's novels with eyes wide shut, missing 90 percent of the characterization, the conflict, the drama, the ideas. Call it Mr. Magoo epistemology.

The thinking habit behind this is: stick to the safe, the comfortable, the conventional, and be wary of challenging new ideas. This is why Ayn Rand's conservative critics always dismiss the earnest idealism of her novels as an appeal to the "adolescent," the idea being that when you grow up, you will give up, stop trying to answer the big questions of life for yourself, and just accept the conventional answers that have been provided to you.

Thus the bottom line, according to Steorts, is this: "Atlas Shrugged's power as an anthem against President Obama's agenda seems to me to be highly limited, and I think those of us who oppose that agenda would be unwise to push it as our manifesto." This is a call for moral and intellectual disarmament, at the worst possible time—and all to save a certain faction of conservatives from having to confront their own self-imposed blindness.

That's the worst part about the renewed conservative attacks on Ayn Rand. The last time they made a similar effort was around 2005, on the occasion of the centenary of Ayn Rand's birth, a time when we now know the groundwork was being laid for the financial crisis. It was a time when the case for free markets and capitalism—particularly the moral case—was being ignored by the right as well as the left. In short, it was a time when Ayn Rand's influence was desperately needed to save us from disaster, and these conservatives kept telling us to move along, that there was nothing to see here.

I don't think they can do it any more. Perhaps they could blunt Ayn Rand's influence when more of their readers were exposed only to articles like those by Chambers and Stuttaford—but not when so many of them are now reading Ayn Rand directly and drawing their own conclusions about the value of her work. I think that the National Review's desperate rear-guard action to defuse the impact of Ayn Rand's ideas will be futile—as it should be.

It is futile, because the logic of events is causing Americans to realize that they do need Ayn Rand's ideas—and they definitely need the projection, in literature, of her heroes' uncompromising determination to fight for their liberty.

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