Monday, October 15, 2007

Do You Want To Be Taken Seriously? Do You??

Without divulging too much of where I am reading such things, I must say that past a certain age, it is no longer permissible to list "Atlas Shrugged" or Ayn Rand on your profile on a social networking site--at least, if you hope to be taken seriously.


I say this with great tenderness and concern: please, Adult Person Who Juuuust Discovered Objectivism: move on, and reach farther than that stack of high school reading books on the table at Barnes and Noble.

I also say this as one who won the Ayn Rand "Anthem" Essay Contest at the age of 14 (hey, if there was a scholarship in high school, I applied for it just to get book money or save up for college). I further say this as a card-carrying member of the Objectivist Society from the age of 14-16. Of course, my words mean nothing to you, because I've been a registered Democrat since the age of 18, would have voted for FDR and LBJ, believe in the "Second Bill of Rights," and am by any libertarian standards a Commie.

But seriously, any person who lists that book (or, alternately The Fountainhead, and I refuse to read further if I see "Anthem") or that author just can't be taken seriously. It's just so high school. To just have discovered Objectivism and feel completely enthralled by it, at this age--oh, my head. It makes sense for uncritical, newly political, first-blush-of-awareness-of-anything--including their fingertips--teenagers. Not adults! Move onto Rawls, Nozick, anyone! At least then I'll have respect for you! I respect principled, small-l libertarians who have thought about the issues seriously and have read the more serious stuff--if that is what they believe, then I can respect them, if not agree with them. And I have nothing but love for libertarians--TC, my good friend and basil/New Yorker-supplier can attest to this, along with at least two former boyfriends. So it's not so much anti-libertarianness from which I groan, but anti-Randianism. The woman was crazy, the group a cult, the philosophy crap, the writing crappier. Please, move on, Adult Person.

I know that it usually begins with Ayn Rand. But that "beginning" should occur when you are young and stupid, not when you are older and should-know-better.

Julian Sanchez put it best here:

Jerome Tuccile wrote a history of the libertarian movement called "It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand"-- which is accurate enough, since at least when they're first getting interested in libertarian ideas, a lot of people come through Rand. And the funny part is, while she paints herself as this great champion of rationality and logic, the actual philosophy, stripped from the fictional and rhetorical context, is mostly a lot of sophomoric crap. She's not successful because her arguments were any good, but because she effectively gets across a "transvaluation of all values." She paints this portrait of the world going to hell because of political power lust. And, more importantly, she provides this kind of shock-therapy, in that she undoes, at least briefly, a lot of the emotional associations that get drummed into us, and that implicitly shape our political views. Government programs to help people are "generous," and if you want to be good and generous, you support those. Commercial activity is avaricious, and nice people want to constrain the sway of this sphere where greed is the prime engine.

Nozick once told me that as he was coming to hold classical liberal views, there was a point where he was convinced that capitalism was the best system, but that he must be a bad person to think so. I don't think I'd want to adopt her set of emotional associations wholesale, but for a lot of people she helps to loosen a sort of emotional-intellectual straightjacket that makes it impossible to consider classical liberal ideas without associating them automatically with base motivations, or the opposite ideas with noble ones.

There's another role I see for literature, though, and probably the more important one. Rorty talks about "ironists" in politics, which is to say, people who are in some sense ambivalent about and aware of the contingency of their own "final vocabularies". He suggests that this is because, maybe through literature, the power and value of alternative, incompatible final vocabularies has been impressed upon them. As a Rawlsian libertarian, a big part of the appeal of a very "thin" public sphere for me is that the greater the role of government, the harder it is to avoid embedding one conception of the good or another in public policy. The ironist, as Rorty characterizes her, is in many ways ideally suited for the role of Rawls' reasonable citizen, in that she \acknowledges the existence of these incommensurable value sets--the monk and the bon vivant, to pick extreme cases--that are equally authoritative for those who hold them. When, through literature, we're able to feel the pull of these different, incompatible value sets, I think we become more reluctant to want to make one dominant in the public sphere. And we become more cognizant of how a more robust state necessarily starts bumping up against one or the other of these conceptions, how neutrality becomes more difficult. There's a great passage in the final section of Anarchy, State and Utopia, where Nozick's talking about the liberal society as a "framework for utopia," and he asks whether there's some one-best-society for "Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsburg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavicher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Heffner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce ... you and your parents." The same point could've been made as well...or maybe better... citing fictional characters, because fiction helps us to enter the inner-lives of such radically different kinds of people.

There, Adult Person: now you have a good reading list from a Real Libertarian you will actually listen to (rather than a Marxist comrade like me), and may now move on from the puerile crap that is Ayn Rand. For now, just remove it from the list of "favorites."

Sigh. It happens so often though, that I must lighten up, make allowances, and see past it (or, you argue, become less elitist and bitchy), or else I will never find happiness in friendship and love, and my social network will become so small that the sites will drop me for non-participation.