Ayn Rand Would Laugh At Him

Eric Burlison, a state legislator from Springfield, Mo., spoke at Saturday’s Joplin Tea Party rally.  During his speech he mentioned that he couldn’t wait to see the new movie, Atlas Shrugged, which was released last Friday.

As most of you know, Atlas Shrugged is a novel by Ayn Rand, the pro-choice atheist philosopher whose childishly tidy philosophy argues that selfishness is a virtue and altruism is a weakness, a deadly weakness. 

I can’t be the only one who finds irony in the fact that a man like Eric Burlison—a “pro-life” Christian who advertises that he gives back to the community by “serving” and “volunteering“—is behind a podium at a Tea Party event extolling the philosophy of a godless “baby-killer,” who would openly ridicule and scorn Mr. Burlison’s work on behalf of Big Brothers and Big Sisters and the Ronald McDonald House.

Except that when you think about it, what is the Tea Party movement about, if not essentially about selfishness?  At the Joplin Tea Party event, the crowd was mostly made up of older folks, many of them, no doubt, on Social Security and Medicare, who nevertheless enthusiastically applauded speaker after speaker who spoke about a too-large government, a government that takes too much and redistributes it to those who don’t deserve it.  These folks essentially epitomize a version of Randian selfishness philosophy:  They’ve got theirs and to hell with everyone else.

Isn’t that what is happening in Tea Party America?

Just look at the Tea Party’s favorite candidate these days.  Donald Trump, the Ugly American, is riding high on a wave of paranoia, perverse pride, and petty grievances.  His appearance this past weekend at a Florida Tea Party event was both clownish and vicious, both absurd and revealing.

What Trump’s well-received appearance in Florida—as well as his other public statements that have impressed teapartiers—reveals is a disturbing development in American politics. That there are people who take this egotistical, uninformed fool seriously says more about America than I care to acknowledge.  The fact that he is cheered as he denigrates America and brags about his intelligence and his business acumen—despite much contrary evidence—is symptomatic of how far a significant slice of the American electorate has fallen into a sort of Randian trance, where all but the self-described “producers” are leeches who deserve an ill fate.

And here in Joplin I watched a conservative Republican from Springfield, a man who boasts of his volunteer spirit and his “pro-life” credentials, a man who claims he shows “humility and humbleness in an open setting,” salivate over the release of a movie based on the philosophy of a woman who would mock him and his Christian beliefs.

As I said, absurd and revealing.

Advertisements

Medicare: The End

“Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.”

— former Rep. Alan Grayson, commenting on the “Republican health care plan,” September, 2009

Alan Grayson was roundly condemned for his highly critical remarks during the health care reform debate, which now seems like a decade ago.  But thanks to Paul Ryan we can see that Grayson’s sin was not that he inaccurately pegged Republican philosophy, but that he was simply a little premature in doing so.

Make no mistake about it: Paul Ryan, and by extension Republicans in the House—remember that Ryan was given extraordinary power to speak for them on budget issues—are now on record as lobbying for the destruction of Medicare and Medicaid as we know them.  And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has tiptoed in and called it a “credible proposal.”

Therefore, it’s now clear just what the Republican health care philosophy is, in terms of the non-wealthy elderly, the poor, and the disabled.  But don’t take my or Alan Grayson’s word for it. Listen to Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of Obama’s Fiscal Responsibility Commission. 

They released a letter that criticized House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan’s plan for largely exempting defense spending—imagine that!—and for its lack of tax increases, a necessity, they said, for “broad bipartisan agreement.”  They continued:

As a result, the Chairman’s plan relies on much larger reductions in domestic discretionary spending than does the Commission proposal, while also calling for savings in some safety net programs — cuts which would place a disproportionately adverse effect on certain disadvantaged populations.

Those “certain disadvantaged populations” don’t put much jingle in the GOP collection plate, so why should they give a damn about them?

Even though we know that Paul Ryan’s plan will not become law—at least for the next two years—we do know the details of what Tea Party-drunk Republicans plan to implement if they ever do get the power they crave:

Medicare, the only thing that stands between some older folks and suffering or death, would become a voucher program, one that would leave those without adequate wealth coverage without adequate health coverage. 

Essentially, Ryan’s plan would require future senior citizens to navigate the private insurance market in search of a plan they could afford on the vouchers they are given.  If the coverage they need exceeds the voucher amount—a certainty, thanks to the way the plan is structured—tough shit. 

Of course, the wealthy need not worry.  They get the voucher and, partly thanks to Ryan’s generous tax policy for the wealthy—a reduction of the top rate to 25%—they will have plenty of dough to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of the insurance. 

Medicaid becomes a block grant program in which states would essentially get to determine how they spend the money the federal government gives them. As Newt Gingrich admitted, this would inevitably mean that some states would short-change the poor, the elderly, and the disabled on Medicaid by making it harder to obtain benefits and by reducing those benefits.  There isn’t any doubt about that.  Just look at what Republicans in the various states are doing now in times of economic stress, times in which benefits are needed most.

Look, I don’t completely blame Ryan and other Republicans for proposing tax cuts for the wealthy while ending health care entitlements for everyone else.  That would be like blaming great white sharks for leg-munching in bloody water.  It’s what they do. 

About the Tea Party Republicans, Ryan told a reporter on Tuesday:

…you look at these people, these new people who just got here. None of them came here for a political career. They came here for a cause. This is not a budget, this is a cause.

A cause.”  Spoken like a bona fide devotee of Ayn Rand.  Rep. Ryan requires his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, according to New York magazine, which explains a lot about his budget proposal.  Years ago, he told a group gathered to honor Rand,

The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.

To be a real Randian, as Jonathan Chait put it, one has to believe that,

the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers.

That’s the Tea Party Republican definition of those “certain disadvantaged populations” that Bowles and Simpson mentioned.  They’re “looters and moochers.”

With the advent of the Tea Party and its hostile takeover of the Republican Party, Randian nonsense is now the dominant economic philosophy controlling the actions of GOP congressional leadership. And I suppose the final seal of approval was given to Ryan on Tuesday, when Glenn Beck said he loved Ryan. 

And, by the way, Ryan loved him back.

So, while I don’t put all the blame on Republican sharks for their unseemly ravenous carnivorism, I will blame Democrats if they don’t put the rope Ryan has given them around the necks of every single Republican in the country who won’t denounce the plan to kill Medicare and Medicaid. 

Alan Grayson may have put it somewhat indelicately, but he essentially got it right:

The Republican health care plan is, “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.”

Conservatives And The Myths They Tell

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

—2 Timothy 4:3,4

Thomas Sowell, whose national columns appear regularly in the Joplin Globe, is quite good at telling local conservatives what they want to hear, or at least what they think they want to hear. 

In today’s offering, he extolls the virtues of old industrialists and inventers—”heroes”— like “Rockefeller, Edison, Ford and the Wright brothers.”  These people, Sowell says, revolutionized our lives and made America a better place to live.

And so they did.  No one—and I mean no sane person—would argue with Sowell that in so many ways such ambitiously creative and enterprising folks have enriched our lives.

But that, of course, isn’t really Sowell’s point at all.  What he really wants to do—and this is what pleases his readers—is to bash those mythical meddling liberals, who obviously hate the rich and powerful and want to punish them at any cost. He saves his obvious and typical jab for the end:

But today we seldom even know the names of those who have made these monumental contributions to human well-being. All we know is that some people have gotten “rich” and that this is to be regarded as some sort of grievance.

Many of the people we honor today are people who are skilled in the rhetoric of grievances and promises of new “rights” at someone else’s expense. But is that what is going to make a better America?

Get it? The myth that conservatives love to tell each other is this: While those virtuous John Galts are out there holding up the American sky, success-hating liberals and progressives are kicking them in the shins with their worries—”grievances,” as Sowell phrases it—about some of the obvious negative consequences of industrialization and advancement. 

In Sowell’s column today he inadvertently gives an example of what I mean.  Crediting Rockefeller for “cost-cutting innovations” he writes:

Before he came along, gasoline was considered a useless by-product that petroleum refineries often simply dumped into the nearest river. But Rockefeller decided to use it as a fuel in the refining process, which made it valuable, even before automobiles came along.

While we can all applaud Rockefeller for finding a “cost-cutting” way of using gasoline, we have to ask:  What if he hadn’t found a way of utilizing it?  Would it be okay in Sowell’s world to just keep pouring gasoline into our rivers?  Huh? 

One of those bothersome grievances brought by the liberals that Sowell and other conservative writers hate so much is industrial pollution.  I suppose we could simply let each industry pollute the air and the water until someone comes along and finds a use for the pollutants, but we would live in a much different America if we did: “Look kids! The river’s on fire again! I’ll get the marshmallows!

Now, it happens that also in today’s edition of the Globe is a story headed, “Man pleads guilty to dumping light bulbs.”   The man—a businessman—was a contractor who replaced a lighting system for another business in 2008.  Rather than dispose of the nearly 800 pounds of fluorescent tubes, the man—a businessman—simply dumped the mercury-tainted hazardous waste on land he claimed he thought was his aunt’s.  Turned out it wasn’t.

But the point is this: Should the man—a businessman—be allowed to dump 800 pounds of hazardous waste even on his own property? Should there be a “grievance” brought against him for that, or should we just wait and see if the man can find some later use for his “by-product”?

Which reminds me of a story I read in the paper earlier this month. It concerned a local and, no doubt, proud Republican legislator from Carthage, who is a member of this year’s pro-business, anti-regulatory Missouri House.  The story began this way:

CARTHAGE, Mo. — If there are persistent odor problems from a reopened Renewable Environmental Solutions plant, state Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, wants a state law on the books to respond.

I am sure Rep. Flanigan was quite eager to join his conservative Republican colleagues in Jefferson City in order to get started on making Missouri attractive to businesses—despite the fact that Republicans have practically turned the state over to business interests—but it is interesting that Mr. Flanigan has no problem with pursuing his “grievance” against polluters:

Flanigan on Thursday introduced a bill that would require a company to forfeit its state operating permit and face financial penalties if it persistently violated state air and water pollution standards.

Actually, Flanigan’s grievance against polluters is not just his grievance in this case.  He is rightfully representing the neighbors of the former RES plant (which shut down in 2009), some of whom are pursuing the matter in court and fear that an ongoing effort to reopen the plant will result in more odor problems and diminish their quality of life.  

And that’s the point.  Is Rep. Flanigan a nannyish liberal who wants to exact revenge on the rich with his anti-pollution legislation? No, he’s not.  He is merely representing his constituents, who have been aggrieved by a local business, and presumably he thinks other Missouri residents would benefit from his legislation.

In the same way, liberals and other “do-gooders” and “nannies” don’t want the government to regulate businesses because businessmen are filthy rich and don’t deserve the rewards of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and hard work. But that’s the myth that liberal-hating Thomas Sowell and other conservatives tell and sell to their readers and listeners.

No. Liberals believe that we have a better world not just because today’s Fords and Rockefellers provide us with cars and gasoline—which undeniably add to the quality of our lives—but because they provide us such things without unnecessarily polluting our air and water.

And many of those Fords and Rockefellers wouldn’t worry much about the quality of our air and water if it weren’t for those who, in Sowell’s words, “are skilled in the rhetoric of grievances and promises of new “rights” at someone else’s expense.”

Ayn Rand And The Seduction of the New Right

NOTE: The following is a reply to a comment on my post, “Another Ayn Rand Nut For Our Times,” by someone with the moniker, “Wants.”  Those of you not interested in Ayn Rand or political philosophy should skip the following entry.

Wants,

Thanks for that thoughtful response.  And I must say it is refreshing to engage someone who holds the views you do (“I can understand the root of the fear“), yet understands that those who hold a different view are not anti-American or unpatriotic devils.  The following is a rather lengthy response, but your comments allow me to do something I have wanted to do for a while: briefly explore the strange world of those conservatives who seem to have an affection for the once-heretical ideas of the little Russian-American philosopher, Ayn Rand.

To begin, let us move away from a discussion of We the Living to the much more familiar, Atlas Shrugged, about which Glenn Beck said on his radio show several months ago:

Ayn Rand understood and identified the deeper causes of the crisis we’re facing, and she offered in “Atlas Shrugged” the principled and practical solution consistent with American values.

Ayn RandThe core idea of Atlas Shrugged is that, in the words of Whittaker Chambers, “the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash.

I can’t imagine a more arrogant or elitist conception of life, and it is a weird irony that many of the contemporary proponents of such a view would also see themselves as populists, much like Glenn Beck does.  The idea that without these “brains” (those who “get it”) the rest of us will make a mess of the world is a sentiment echoed (sometimes thunderously, sometimes faintly) throughout the world of right-wing talk radio and television.  

But no matter the intensity, there exists the notion that those of us on the outside—who are “asleep”—cannot  possibly survive without those insightful, productive, clear-eyed egoists leading the way, and it is incumbent upon us to subordinate ourselves, if we wish to have any kind of decent life.  And the grand irony is that they present the necessary subordination of ourselves and our ideas to their views in the language of liberty.

Admittedly, this hybrid philosophy is believed only by a relatively small group of people, but many of its propagandists have a rather large megaphone, sometimes influencing professional politicians who call themselves Republicans.  And I have often argued that they are doing irreparable harm to the Grand Old Party, like Darwin’s parasitic wasp feeding on its host. 

You wrote,

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with questioning government expansion, but I also don’t agree that it is inherently an irretrievable step closer to totalitarianism.

Now, that is a sensible view, and one that thoughtful people can discuss.

Your most perceptive statement, though, was:

Most people will agree that some form of government is necessary to protect and guarantee the basic rights of individuals in a society, but when it comes to modifying the power and reach of the government it is perfectly viable to question whether an expansion of power is needed and justified or whether it is over-reaching.

There are always legitimate questions about the propriety of government action.  Is the action necessary?  Does it increase or at least preserve the reservoir of liberty?  A quick example would be federal civil rights laws that effectively ended Jim Crow.  Were they an expansion of federal power?  Yes.  But did they serve to increase the reservoir of liberty?  Absolutely.  Thus, such laws were not only justified, they were necessary in order to give to culturally disenfranchised black citizens a degree of liberty enjoyed by whites.

colored signBut a sterile, Randian analysis of such laws these days might suggest something different:  What about the rights of the restaurant owner who doesn’t want black people eating with whites?  What about his rights?  And there is the problem: The contraction of the “liberty” of a proprietor—(“You can’t discriminate against a man because he is black“) is understood as an evil.  And the expansion of the liberty of multitudes of African-Americans is never considered, certainly not considered as a “good.” 

Another discovery, when one mines the rich vein of irony in contemporary (as opposed to the old-line variety represented by William F. Buckley) conservatism’s flirtation with Randian philosophy, is highlighted by Chambers, as he references Karl Marx:

He, too, admired “naked self-interest” (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment. The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism.

And there you have it.

In order to attack liberalism, particularly the caricatured liberalism of Barack Obama, contemporary conservatives are willing to put into service a naked materialist like Ayn Rand, if not utilizing the letter of her writings, at least making use of the spirit of them.

chambers1939Chambers, a religious man, was naturally dubious of Rand’s atheism, and he portrayed her philosophy as one in which, “Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity.

He continues:

Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

The final irony of the new coalition of conservatism and Randianism is that her “noble” philosophy, predicated on a fierce but false idea of freedom, will inevitably end in a kind of tyranny.  Chambers sees in Rand’s call for “productive achievement” a necessarily “technological achievement,” which can only be supervised by “a managerial political bureau.”  Such a situation, according to Chambers,

…can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself (as Miss Rand believes it should be), and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be).

Whittaker Chambers, a former communist, had at least some insight into the totalitarian mind.  He wrote of Atlas Shrugged, but really of the Nietzschean Ayn Rand herself:

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture… At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house.

I can’t help but admire the voice of Whittaker Chambers, even as I have moved away from that despairing “man of the right,” and even as his voice is increasingly unfamiliar to a new generation of philosophically deaf conservatives.

But there is no denying that he accurately pegged the little Russian woman, who though he thought her sophistic and egoistic philosophy would have no “lasting ill effects,” nevertheless could not countenance her literary supposition, “that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.”

If you doubt the influence of Ayn Rand on some of those who are leading the New Right, here is a short video of Glenn Beck conversing with Yaron Brook, Executive Director, The Ayn Rand Center:

%d bloggers like this: