Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Rand's Critics "Overcompensate"

Objectivists quite rightly complain that much criticism of Rand and Objectivism is unfair. For whatever reason people often find it difficult to fairly discuss ideas with which they agree. Most Christians shake their heads when they read Objectivist critiques of their views, I imagine.

Here are a few reasons why I think Objectivism is easy to misrepresent or, perhaps better put, for critics to "overcompensate" in their criticism.

1. Rand is the greatest thinker since Aristotle. While I admit that she is worth reading and even important, some of the claims about her genius and originality are overstated. And is everything Rand said worthy of great praise? I think of Leonard Peikoff's claim that Rand's diagnosis of the streaker at the Academy Awards as a Kantian nihilist as the summit of cultural criticism.

2. Rand is a great novelist and Atlas Shrugged is the greatest work of fiction ever. Like many people I enjoy The Fountainhead but think Atlas Shrugged brought out some of her worst tendencies, such as using characters as a soap box.

3. Rand's style. It strikes me as hectoring in the extreme and does to many others as well. Of course that doesn't mean someone should call her a "fascist" or "totalitarian."

4. Rand's life. Unless Rand's three biographers (Barbara Branden, Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller) got it completely wrong, Rand had a cruel and eccentric side and encouraged what, with some exaggeration, might be called a "cult." Rand's critics might not know the controversy about Rand's character, but aren't they entitled to rely on these books (in particular those written by non-insiders, Burns and Heller)? When Peikoff tells us that Rand's only character flaw was occasionally blowing her top (which he tries to turn into a virtue) aren't Rand's critics justified in concluding that maybe orthodox Objectivism has something to hide?

5. Rand's movement. The denunciations of fellow advocates (Peikoff's attack on Gotthelf's 2000 book Ayn Rand for example), the splits, Harry Binswanger's loyalty oath, the rewriting of Rand's journals and other material (first revealed by Burns) to conform to Rand's reports about herself, etc. make Objectivism look a little eccentric.

6. Altruism. Rand's jeremiad against altruism just doesn't "resonate" with most people. For example, in Burns' book there some discussion of Rose Wilder Lane's interaction with Rand. Lane grew up on the frontier when people just "helped out." She could never understand why all behavior should be motivated by self-interest or why Rand couldn't appreciate the difference between coercive and non-coercive altruism.

4 comments:

clay barham said...

Too many criticize Ayn Rand's objections to religion. America began its journey in 1620 on the bases of individual freedom, because of its Christian roots. Take away those roots and stick with individual freedom and it still works. Ayn Rand boosted individual freedom, regardless of her accepting those roots, so that changes nothing. The result is what we look for and will never throw an ally under the bus for not accepting what we see as the roots. Look closely at the 19th century libertarian Democrats who followed Jefferson and Madison, cited in claysamerica.com and Amazon. Everything worked well in spite of differences of opinion. claysamerica.com

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KZ said...

Mr. Parille,

Good essay! Very fair and balanced, as always. Do you secretly work for Fox TV? ;-)

But you forgot the most obvious reason why Randian fans and opponents are usually at such dismaying loggerheads: She's STUNNINGLY controversial. So critics find it easy to accidentally misunderstand as well as deliberately misrepresent her. This leaves normal and healthy Objectivists indignant.

But most activist Objectivists aren't normal and healthy: They're cultists. So decent, fair-minded non-Objectivists usually respond to Rand's would-be defenders with withering contempt. This is, unfortunately, understandable and proper.

But it's always thus with revolutionaries like Ayn Rand. Remember: She's the purest of radicals, and pretty much a one-woman Renaissance!

FreeZoneThetan said...

I would say the main reason critics of Rand tend to go overboard is because they have a knee-jerk hatred of anything involving laissez-faire or smacking of egoism. Almost anyone I have ever argued with about Rand present either some ridiculous straw-man that bears no relation to what she actually advocated or is simply based on a bunch of left-wing emotivist blah-blah-blah.

That being said, there are many things one could validly criticize in Rand's work and 'movement'; I personally loathe the ARI. I loled at the Kantian Nihilist Streaker. Years ago when I read Peikoff's Ominous Parallels I thought, "Wow, he's blaming Nazism and irrationalism on a hyper-rationalist classical liberal whom almost no one has ever read."

Rand read hardly any philosophy and her system suffers for it, especially with its foundationalist fallacies.