Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ryan, Rand, and the Limits of Integrity (Like Not Having Any)

Let me start by getting my ad hominems out of the way, so you’ll know more or less where this will be coming from, and if you don’t want to read further, by all means move quickly on: Mitt Romney may be to all appearances an empty suit with a hairstyle, but when I look at Paul Ryan, I’m strongly reminded of the warrior lizards in “V” (2009-2011). Ryan is Romney’s Dick Cheney, but with the alien reptile better hidden beneath an attractive, youthful skin job. Make no mistake: If this pair gets elected, you should be very afraid. The US as the self-regarded “cradle of democracy”, or whatever, may be done; think “theoplutocracy” (no I didn’t make that up, but it’s where we are headed if we let the funda-corporatists have their way).

My Summer Romance with Ayn Rand. By now, anyone with an ounce of political awareness (and perhaps many more with none), have heard of Paul Ryan’s much discussed admiration for Ayn Rand (more than a brief flirtation, less than a full-blown love affair, the way he tells it now?)(see, for example, Fussbudget: How Paul Ryan Captured the G.O.P., by Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, 06 August 2012; Romney, Ryan, Ayn Rand, and the Religious Right: The Unholy Alliance, by Lonnie Griesbaum, Daily Kos, 13 August 2012*). Anyone not already cognizant of who she was, should certainly by now have Googled the founder of “Objectivism”, and author of The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, The Virtue of Selfishness, and other screeds. Doubtless many can tell a story similar to this one: Sometime around the 8th or 9th grade I stumbled on my mother’s copy of The Fountainhead, and was won over by all the talk about “integrity” and the primacy of the creative individual, and the willingness of the architect hero, Howard Roark, to place his ideals ahead of quick recognition and success, essentially to suffer material deprivation for the sake of his art. Unforgettable also (from the point of view of a 9th grader) is that on the way he gets to bed a beautiful sado-masochistic heroine, Dominique Francon. Eventually Roark is triumphant against all the forces of evil (collectivism, altruism, bad architecture) without compromising an iota of his moral superiority (well, actually, he did try to compromise once, and needless to say it ended badly, teaching him—and the reader—Never To Try That Again).

By the time I got to college, I had read The Fountainhead three times, and devoured the rest of Rand’s fiction oeuvre, including We The Living, Anthem, and Atlas Shrugged. Well, as to the latter, it was less a case of devouring, and more like choking on the (in)famous 70 page radio speech/manifesto, that inflexible and indigestible spine running up the ass of this 1100+ page monstrosity. By the end of Freshman year I was almost but not quite done with Rand. I didn’t see that ideals of personal honesty and integrity were incompatible with my natural left-liberal inclinations (and I still don’t). And who would not agree that totalitarianism, as represented by both Hitlerian Nazism and Soviet Stalinism, were evils to be opposed at all costs (this is a no-brainer, folks, you don’t need to have read Aristotle); nor did I disagree that for the most part organized religion is a barrier to human liberation and progress, not to mention a frequent source and abettor of the worst impulses of humankind (another no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned). Rather than winning me over as a complete and faithful convert, however, reading Atlas Shrugged (which, by the way, let me be clear on this, totally sucks as a novel, let alone as a novel of ideas) crystallized for me what utter rubbish Objectivism is.

The final blow came a few years later, when I read this:

Rand: Now, I don't care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man [italics are mine]. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you're a racist if you object, because it means you believe that certain men are entitled to something because of their race. You believe that if someone is born in a magnificent country and doesn't know what to do with it, he still has a property right to it. He does not. Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights--they didn't have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal "cultures"--they didn't have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using. It's wrong to attack a country that respects (or even tries to respect) individual rights. If you do, you're an aggressor and are morally wrong. But if a "country" does not protect rights--if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of their tribal chief--why should you respect the "rights" that they don't have or respect? The same is true for a dictatorship. The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too--that is, you can't claim one should respect the "rights" of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let's suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages--which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched--to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it's great that some of them did. The racist Indians today--those who condemn America--do not respect individual rights.**

My thoughts at the time were, if you can use a high-minded rationalist “philosophy of individualism” to justify what was done to Native Americans (No settled society? No concept of rights? Savages? Slaves? Animals? Cavemen?) or to Japanese-Americans in WWII (Yes, perhaps they were living in some “dictatorship” where rights are not respected, rather than being residents and citizens of the US? Ironists stifle your snickers!), you can use it to justify any other form of naked thievery (which one could argue is precisely what Objectivism does), and moreover not at all short of genocide or ethnic cleansing. It’s a perfect illustration of claiming the elevated plateau of rationalism while diving straight off the cliff of rationalization. So it’s okay to steal from people if you claim they don’t have the same concept of property rights as you. Where is the fucking “integrity” in this? Or, as Mr. Natural once said, “Is dis a system?”

Von Ryan’s Distress. That Paul Ryan has been an admirer of Ayn Rand and her philosophy is a matter of public record. For the moment, let’s concede that he has covered his ass on the point of Rand’s uncompromising atheism by simply stating that he never agreed with this part of her philosophy. And let’s forget for the moment that this must surely involve a major, albeit rather convenient, effort of disconnection from one of the few points Rand got correct. In fact, let’s just forget that it’s actually laughable for anyone coming from the religious right, and forwarding a religious based legislative agenda, as exemplified by the "Sanctity of Human Life Act" (which Ryan co-sponsored along with 64 other Republicans***), to claim even a limited affinity with Rand and Objectivist philosophy, or its more malleable cousin, Libertarianism. Rand, who did not buy into the idea of legislating away the rights of adults to govern the functions of their own bodies, would certainly have laughed in Ryan’s face. Incidentally, Rand’s attitude towards Libertarianism was also unqualified scorn. But while we’re at it, why not also give Ryan a pass (you see what I’m doing here?) on Rand’s descent into the abyss of outright racism and de facto justification for ethnic cleansing, because I’m sure he would vehemently disagree with her notion that Native Americans are sub-humans who had no right to a single square inch of the land they were living on because they didn’t share a European weltanschauung.

Let’s focus instead on what such furious processes of rationalization imply about Ryan and his supporters who propose to govern according to both Biblical and Libertarian principles: a phenomenal lack of integrity. The same lack of integrity that allows right-wing religious zealots to select certain supposed Biblical imperatives to enforce or at least accept (anti-homosexuality, embryonic “right-to-life”, capital punishment, narrow definition of marriage, patriarchy, exclusionary tribalism, genocide and ethnic cleansing) while ignoring others that reflect a more, shall we say, left-liberal view (safety net for the poor, justice for the vulnerable, frowning on accumulation of excess material wealth and comforts, treating the stranger in your midst with kindness and respect). The same lack of integrity that allows Tea Partiers to rage on and on against “government interference” in the lives of citizens while accepting or even forwarding religious-based legislation on private consenting sexual behavior and the reproductive rights of women—while in fact declaring outright war on women’s rights and health care options (more on all this later).

I predict that when confronted with further questions about his attitude towards Ayn Rand, her writings and beliefs, Ryan will backpedal even more furiously. He must. What he won’t be able to back away from are all the essential contradictions inherent in being a Conservative Republican politician, not to mention claiming to be an advocate of government fiscal minimalism while being a career politician who has long suckled at government’s hind teat. Not to mention trying to win election as the presumptive intellectual backstop to an empty suit and hairstyle, whose Church, by the way, doesn’t recognize Ryan’s as legitimate, and vice versa.


*I found Lonnie Griesbaum's article after writing my own, but it isn't surprising to find more than such piece homing in on this particular aspect of Paul Ryan's background. I hope my take can be found sufficiently different from everyone else's to avoid total duplication.
**Here I am reproducing the version from a source edition published later than the one I actually read, that is, from page 102-104 of the book Ayn Rand Answers ISBN 0-451-21665-2, where she is responding to the question "When you consider the cultural genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, and the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War Two, how can you have such a positive view of America?" in the Q&A section of a lecture, "Philosophy: Who Needs It" given to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, 06 March 1974. This pretty much contains everything I objected to at the time.
***Including the now infamous Todd Akin (R-MO2). Note added 21 August 2012.