A Note to Readers: I’ve made the decision to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring both my understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and why I struggle with publicly calling myself an Objectivist—primarily because of Dr. Yaron Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute distorting important aspects of her philosophy. This is part one of a five-part series.
I’m officially incensed.
This may not surprise longtime readers, if any are left, but it will surprise anyone who’s kept up with the last few sporadic posts. Even I would agree my blog has gotten a lot less entertaining, because I don’t give nearly enough of a shit about neurotic nitpicking, which means I have less to rant about, and the things I do rant about are more political and socioeconomical in nature. Hot-button issues, and so on.
In order to explain why I am incensed, I need to make a couple of things clear. First, I’ve alluded a couple of times to having read a mysterious, life-changing book that helped crystallize my thoughts about society and the world around me. If you are a longtime reader, it will probably surprise you to learn that book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and that I’ve spent a lot of time in the intervening two years reading about her philosophy of Objectivism, other schools of philosophy, and religion.
I’ve never brought any of this up, because I get along much better with people who brand themselves as liberals than those who brand themselves as conservatives, and liberals haaaaate Ayn Rand. Every time I’ve brought up the mystery book, I’ve noted that it would remain anonymous because I don’t have any interest in arguing with people. I still don’t, on this blog or in life. All of my closest friends know I’ve read Ayn Rand’s work and see it hasn’t turned me into a demonic Wall Street cokehead, or worse, Paul Ryan. The only change in our relationship is that occasionally we challenge each others’ views a little more fervently. What I’ve found with most of them, though, is that we generally agree on most issues; we just disagree on the best methods for solving problems.
On a blog… Well, I just never cared to discuss it. I spent a week arguing about fucking Daybreakers; imagine how much more aggressive I’d be if someone attacked a thing I actually care about. The anonymous internet, I’ve found, doesn’t lend itself to high-quality, well-reasoned arguments, especially about Ayn Rand. I see attacks on her all the time, and not just on articles directly related to her. I often see non sequiturs in the comments sections (I really need to stop reading those…) of articles about some form of conservative victory or Tea Party retardation. They tell me, quite clearly, that the author has no idea what they’re talking about. The fine work of Yaron Brook, as President and Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, has confused the left as much as the right in its attempts to transform Rand into the voice of the neo-conservative movement.
Should I try to step in and change their minds? I’m not an activist, so it’s partly an issue of time management—wasting a bunch of my own time trying to open up closed minds—but mainly an issue that I don’t give a fuck what other people believe, unless it has the possibility of hurting other people (especially me). An idiot on a blog who parrots something a comedian who never read Ayn Rand says about Atlas Shrugged has no effect on me, so let them go on thinking what they do. I can think they’re wrong and criticize them, but turning it into an argument means trying to persuade them that their entire belief system is wrong, which it probably is, but I don’t care.
In a sense, though, I’m “outing” myself here now as a form of indirect activism. I’m so irritated that I need to express my frustration in the form of a blog post—that’s what it’s here for, right?—and because Yaron Brook isn’t just an idiot on a blog who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Many friends have found my affinity for Ayn Rand puzzling, but her work reminds me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut—you know, that guy they all love. I always loved Vonnegut, too, because he saw what’s wrong with the world, cut through the bullshit, and mercilessly mocked hypocrisies, contradictions, and terrible people. Rand does the same thing, surprisingly often with similar perceptions about the same topics, with one key difference: instead of simply shrugging and saying, “So it goes,” as Vonnegut did, she asked, “How can we make this better?” And she went about proposing solutions based on her perceptions.
Christian ethics and morality never sat well with me. I think that’s one reason I’ve never been able to buy into religion. I always struggled with it, though, because for all my seeking, I couldn’t find anything satisfying that replaced it. Most of the philosophy I’d been exposed to came across as men desperately trying to pretzel-logic their way into justifying the existence of God in a world that increasingly didn’t need Him. And one the one hand, you have the types like Vonnegut who just shrug in apathy, but on the other, you have nihilists like James Ellroy or Bret Easton Ellis who reduce all human behavior to its most basic, disgusting elements, with no appreciation for the nuance and complexity of the brain (or, at least, no ability to express it in their writing).
I’ve spent my life looking for answers, all over the place, something to resolve the seeming contradictions at war in my own mind. For examples of these many contradictions, read every single blog post from 2002-2012. I always used to describe to my therapist the feeling of having two voices, not quite an angel and a devil… I would describe it as my “emotional side” and my “logical side.” I think this struggle is very common for many people. In retrospect, I can attribute every single problem in my life—past, present, and would’ve-been-future—to the fact that the emotional voice was a lot louder and more obnoxious than my timid logical voice. The logical voice rarely won the battle; I would just end up feeling guilty because it would try to tell me I have a competitive spirit, that—gasp!—sometimes I like my own work, that I have value as a writer and a human being. The emotional side would quickly shut that up. “You can’t think those things about yourself,” it would say. “You can only accept validation through the praise of others.” Which then led to a prolonged crisis of self-esteem, because few things take the “self” out of self-esteem like the belief that I can only derive esteem through the opinions of others.
Exposure to Ayn Rand’s work resolved these conflicts. It didn’t turn me into an asshole or a narcissist or a wannabe-plutocrat on the prowl for opportunities to stomp all over people climbing the ladder of success. Anyone with any exposure to her work or philosophy already knows that that’s not what it’s about. All Ayn Rand’s work did was allow me to see the best possible version of myself—the one I actually could be, not some fantasy—and strive to become that. Over the course of about six months, this caused every aspect of my life to improve. My confidence improved, my drive and ambition improved, my integrity became an asset instead of a liability… I found a better job at a great company, got my financial shit together, became very close with two great friends, got into the only healthy romantic relationship I’ve ever been in, started eating right and working out, and on and on.
It’s been hard. I know what I need to do to succeed, but I was a complete fucking mess for a lot longer than I’ve had my eyes open. I still have issues with anxiety. Sometimes I binge on junk food (I’ve always been an emotional/stress eater, and sometimes I go for pure comfort foods instead of good foods). My friendship with one of the great friends fell apart (turns out it wasn’t so great, and I’m partly to blame for that). My girlfriend broke up with me, and I’m not really clear on why, but it happened. But these facts don’t mean I’ve bought into a broken system; it just means I’m still broken. Would you say AA is a failure because most alcoholics relapse at least once?
Anyway, I needed to explain all of that to explain what comes next.
I listen to Leonard Peikoff‘s podcast on a regular basis. (For those unaware, which I would guess is most of you, Peikoff is considered Ayn Rand’s “intellectual heir,” and continued the effort of promoting her work and philosophy after her death.) I don’t always agree with him—and, because Objectivist philosophy is not the cult it’s sometimes claimed to be, I don’t feel the need to question my beliefs every time that happens—but I think he’s hilarious, a cantankerous old man answering questions (mostly about sex, jobs, and general lifestyle stuff) with a philosophical bent.
For awhile now—maybe a year, though I can’t remember—Peikoff has been alternating his weekly podcast with Yaron Brook. Nobody’s said anything specific, but both have alluded on various podcasts that Brook volunteered to answer political, economics, and foreign policy questions that Peikoff was receiving, because Peikoff isn’t immersed in those subjects and will just say, off the cuff, whatever he thinks is true. Unfortunately, one of the troubling things about Peikoff is his reliance on Fox News and the Wall Street Journal as his only news sources, so he often isn’t aware of the broader scope on many current events issues. These subjects are Brook’s main focus, so they decided to divide the labor based on their respective strengths.
Brook is always a very passionate speaker. Sometimes he introduces fascinating ideas into a public conversation, and sometimes I agree with his perspective. More often, though, I question what he says. I question his position on Israel (to the point of researching the history of the region extensively), his position on total warfare against the Middle East, and his position that Objectivists should always support Republican candidates because they’ll slowly nudge the country in a better direction. At times, it comes across like the goal of ARI is to serve as a mouthpiece for the neo-conservative movement, moreso than the Tea Party and especially than libertarians. (You’ll rarely see as much viciousness in an Objectivist speaker as when you invoke the “L” word.) In fact, I stumbled across a website devoted to this theory, which makes a number of very compelling cases that ARI (especially under Brook’s stewardship) is moving further and further from Ayn Rand’s ideas in order to recruit neo-cons who corrupt and debase her (really, really good) ideas.*
While I tend to disagree with Brook, I still listen to the podcast, and sometimes check out speeches, debates, or writing he does. It’s partly a “know thy enemy” tactic, although it’s a stretch to call Brook an enemy, or even someone I actively dislike; I just disagree with him, and I sometimes wonder how much of what he says he actually believes, and how much of it is designed to cater to curious neo-cons.
This is what led me to the podcast released on January 6th, 2015. I’m going to type out a full transcript of the question and answer:
Q: So this is a question about charity. So this questioner asks, she says she thinks private charity is the way to alleviate catastrophes, or even ongoing issues without immediate solutions, like healthcare for the poor. She understands that charity isn’t an obligation or a virtue, but that creates conflict within her, because she cares deeply about humanity, and she contributes to all kinds of causes all over the world, and by doing so, she believes she’s helping people, and so on, but if it’s not a virtue and it’s not an obligation, should she continue doing this? She knows it’s immoral to pressure anyone else to give money to things they don’t want to, but her concern is, how does she share this with thinking generally, because most of the Objectivsts she knows don’t give to charity, so then how can we argue that charity will solve problems? So I guess she says, the question really boils down to: do you honestly think private charity would be able to fund crisis in an entitlement-free world society?
A: Yes…and no. [as an aside, alluding to a couple of earlier questions he answered with complicated “yes and no” answers] I like this yes and no stuff.
So first, let me say that absolutely, charity is not an obligation, charity is not where you get your moral worth, charity is not a moral virtue, and charity has to be really thought about in terms of, is it rationally in your self-interest? And the problem, I think, you have—the questioner—and I think many of us have is that we grew up and were inculcated by altruism. So it’s very hard to differentiate between, “I’m doing this out of a sense of, really, this is in my rational self-interest, this is a cause I really believe in, I think it’s going to rebound to me in some way, it’s going to make my life better in some way,” or “Am I doing this because I’ve been trained to do this, because my emotions are leading me towards this, I haven’t eradicated altruism from within me,” and I think that’s hard for many people, and I think most people—most Objectivists who give to charity today, other than to the Ayn Rand Institute—to the extent Ayn Rand Institute could be counted as a charity—are doing it out of a sense of altruism, a sense of obligation, and I think they’re doing it for the wrong reason.
I think the only nonprofit you should give money to is the Ayn Rand Institute and similar organizations that are fighting for freedom, because that is the only important battle out there. You’re not going to solve any problem—healthcare problem, women around the world, any problem around there… I don’t know, she mentions women’s reproductive healthcare for women around the world. Poverty in Africa, Ebola—none of these problems will be solved long-term unless Objectivism wins, unless we win the case for liberty, for freedom—for real freedom—for reason, for rational self-interest. So you’re throwing the money away from a rationally self-interested long-term perspective. You know, I believe that all of you Objectivists out there—all of you support laissez-faire capitalism, and support rationally self-interested reason—should be supporting the Ayn Rand Institute, and I think you should be doing it because it’s in your rational self-interest to do it, for the reasons she mentioned: you care about the world in which you live; you care about your own life; you care, to some extent, about other people; and the only way to have an impact on those other people—in a lasting way, in a meaningful way, in a way that lasts—is to help to bring about a better world, and the only way to do that is by changing the culture, and the primary organization dedicated to changing the culture is the Ayn Rand Institute, and you should be focusing your non-profit, tax-deductible giving—your investment in cultural change—to the Ayn Rand Institute. I don’t give to anybody else. I don’t. Because, to the extent that I have some money, I spend most of the money on myself and my family, I save—because I think it’s important to save—and any money I have that I think is available to give to a cause, I give to the Institute. And let me just add that Leonard [Peikoff] asked that you all know that the only non-profit he contributes to is ARI, and that he disagrees with the whole idea that we should be doing charity to support all these other causes today.
You know, yes, in a laissez-faire country, where you’re not paying any taxes, where everybody’s so much better off, charity would be a minor, tiny little thing, because we’d all be so wealthy, and we’d have so much money because we wouldn’t have to carry the burden of the state, and everybody in the entitlement state, with us. Yes, in those cases, you do some charity to help poor people, and to deal with catastrophes, and deal with earthquakes and things like that. But it’s small, it’s insignificant, because you’re free. But you’re not free today. Your primary focus today, in the struggle to change the world, should be your own life and working towards your own freedom.
Now, the nice thing about a philosophy built on individual liberty is that I care less and less about the stupid shit other people say and do with each passing day, and I don’t personalize it as I once did. I’m personalizing this, because it’s in my rational self-interest to do so, for one simple reason: I’m fucking sick of having to defend what I believe is right to the people I care about, because a man who claims to be a spokesman for Ayn Rand’s philosophy makes me sound like an asshole. He says ARI is fighting for my freedom; with rhetoric like this, it’s doing a piss fucking poor job.
Coming Up in Part II: An analysis of ARI’s official positions on various War on Terror controversies. While this might sound totally unrelated to Yaron Brook’s comments about charity, I felt it necessary to show the ways in which Brook and ARI corrupt Objectivist principles by using examples most readers would have some familiarity with. Also: is Islamic extremism a more dangerous threat than Christian extremism? The answer may surprise you!
*To be clear, though, “compelling” is not to be mistaken for “good.” When ARI Watch sticks to facts and analysis, there is some decent stuff. It’s all undermined by the occasional veering into conspiracy theories, including a particularly racist conspiracy theory that the only way to save America is to expel all Latinos; they chalk it up to this idea that Democrats want to pack the country with brown-skinned voters who will dilute the more important votes of “white America,” and completely obliterate the voice of people who believe in what America could be—mainly white Republicans, or maybe libertarians. If any of this were true, wouldn’t a better goal than tossing these new immigrants out be to make the case to them that they left their mostly socialist enclaves for a reason—and that reason is socialism? [Back]