Lent, Day 16, Digression on Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged…”

This morning, I spent an hour and a half watching Atlas Shrugged III, the third installment of the film based on Ayn Rand’s rather large novel.  I must admit that I haven’t read the book, but thought that I could at least take the time to watch the film, and now that I’ve seen the third part, my obligation (entirely of my own making) is discharged.

I have to say that there is a certain naivete in Rand, at least in the philosophy presented in the work I’ve seen (the film of Fountainhead and the play The Night of January 16).  To this point, I’ve not read her work, but there were plenty of lectures in the two films and the play (which is meant to be seen) that I think I have enough of her philosophy.

So far as I can tell, the philosophy boils down to her idea that each person owes allegiance only to himself/herself, and s/he must remain true to that self.  Government is an impedance to that allegiance and truth.  Hence, government is wrong.  Randians would say, and I’ve heard them say, and heard it said in Atlas Shrugged III, that we should not take this enlightened selfishness as a repudiation of community or as a sign of greed and stinginess.  The Randian can be as generous as s/he wants to be, but the point is that it must be his/her choice.  What is clearly rejected is the philosophy of “each contributes according to his ability, and receives according to his need.”

Here are my problems with such a view.  In suggesting that Big Government (or Big Religion) are the problem, there is a naive (and false) view that Big Business is OK.  But business is not necessarily a meritocracy, and there is something cold-hearted and stingy to someone who refuses to help another but sees that person as a moocher.  In our current corporate-political environment, big business in the arms of the pro-business Supreme Court (or the majority of the court) has allowed near unlimited expenditures to push a given agenda or idea.  Hence, we don’t have a debate of ideas, we have a well-funded side using its resources to drown out the other side.  How is that different from the view of government in the film, where government is presented as the bad guy, determined to force everyone to accept its view of the world?

All of the businessmen, and some doctors and professors, in the film who have left the United States to form their own community (Atlantis), are presented as superior people, whose goods (their minds) were being stolen from them.  Hence, they refuse to abide by the rules of society, and so retire.  That same view might be used to justify the Confederacy in its secession from the Union, or a state’s rights to nullify any law with which the political leaders of that state disagree.  Such a route would lead to anarchy.  Certainly as a large power, the United States is in something of a bind — total anarchy might work in a smaller state, but not on a large level.  And where was the anger on the part of the people who were hurt by this action?  Rand takes it (or the film does) as a given that the “creators” can withdraw whenever they like.  Their only allegiance is to themselves and their ideas and they owe no allegiance to the government or to other people who may disagree.  There is no sense of common purpose or common good, to which these leaders and thinkers might owe some allegiance.  Apparently, to them, it’s just a sucker’s position, and one they will not accept.

As a member of a religious movement, Unitarianism, and as a former member of another religious movement, Catholicism, I find such a view abhorrent.  Such a view seems antithetical to the very idea of community.  My community ideal probably is something akin to the Benedictine Monasteries, as presented in the Rule of St. Benedict.  Benedict suggests that one can best find salvation in community, and that the key element of community is that each does what he (Benedict’s communities were all male) can, and that each person is met at his level of need.  In other words, we should do what we can for ourselves and for each other, that such is an obligation, and a mission, and a pleasure, and that no one, no matter how needy, is left alone and uncared for because s/he does not have the plan, or mental acuity, or will, to pull him/herself up by his/her bootstraps.  An old monk stuck in a bed who needs 24 hour care gets that care from his brothers.  A younger brother who can do lots of things does those things and offers them up to God and to the community.  That monastic ideal seems to me closer to the truth than Rand’s selfish fantasy.

Such views from Rand also come across to me as hypocritical.  She herself was on relief when she came to the United States — where were the bootstraps then?  Should she not have accepted her place and simply starved and died?  Following her own logic, the answer would seem yes.  And her hatred of the Soviet government may be well founded — there is a level of coercion there that cannot be defended, but the government of the czars that preceded it was equally corrupt and coercive.  The Soviet state didn’t ruin something beautiful when it took power.  And where were the great Russian minds when it came to building railroads and creating amazing things?  There was no noticeable material improvement in the lives of Russians in the 19th c.

So what has this to do with grace?  I find Ms. Rand’s philosophy of enlightened selfishness to be entirely lacking in grace, and entirely lacking in a generosity of spirit towards others.  She would say that such idealism is false.  I can but return the favor and suggest that her philosophy is an empty and a cruel system.

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