Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Ayn Rand?

“There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.”
...[T]here are people like me: Conservatives who view themselves as Christians first. To us, Rand's worldview is repellent, and the fact that her works are so widespread on the right is beyond annoying.

I hate nearly everything Rand stands for. I find her prose unbearable. But I also, unlike Rand, believe in the virtue of empathy, and have decided to apply it to people who like her work. To that end, here are a few different perspectives on why so many conservatives like Ayn Rand.

1. It's a wish-fulfillment fantasy

In Ayn Rand's books, the main character is typically an implausibly awesome version of the person many conservatives would secretly like to be. Wish-fulfillment fantasies exert a powerful influence on us. There is something in our souls that tells us that we are inadequate, that reminds us of our many failures and the ways the world fails to appreciate our precious gifts. Works of fiction in which the main character unleashes our fantasies touches something deep.

For me as a geeky, bullied preteen, Ender's Game fulfilled this need. Here was a book about a supersmart, supertalented kid who is recognized for it, whose skills are groomed and appreciated, and who eventually goes on to save the world. ....

2. It's possible to dissociate a book from its politics

According to my totally nonscientific sense of things, the single most popular work of fiction among Silicon Valley geeks is The Lord of the Rings. (And even if it's not the MOST popular, it's still undeniably popular.) Much has been written about the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley culture. But Lord of the Rings is profoundly and explicitly anti-technology; Tolkien clearly associates the forces of evil with industrial modernity, and his picture of Eden, whether the Hobbits' Shire or the Elven realms, is pre-technological. Peter Thiel, who may be the most techno-utopian futuristic billionaire in Silicon Valley, has also named not one, not two, but three companies after items or characters from Lord of the Rings. How does he reconcile these contradictions?!?!?!?!?!

It's probably very easy for him, because you don't have to love a piece of art's politics to love the piece of art itself.

.... A young conservative finds an Ayn Rand book; because it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, it exerts a powerful pull on her and she starts to love it, perhaps a bit too much; as the conservative grows up and reads more (and better) conservative books, her politics hopefully separate a bit from Rand's extreme and insane Objectivism, even as she retains a great fondness for the books. ....

3. There are too few works of art in popular culture that have conservative values

To grow up as a conservative with an omnivorous yet discerning aesthetic palate is to get a never-ending, and I mean never-ending, education in the sometimes-difficult process of appreciating works whose political (if not metaphysical) worldview is deeply at odds with your own. ....

This dearth of conservative values in popular culture, then, doesn't just mean that conservatives will latch onto comparatively inferior cultural works that reflect their worldview, although it surely plays a role. But even as a conservative's politics deviate from Rand's, she will be more able to maintain her enjoyment of Rand's works, to an extent that may seem inexplicable to a progressive.

4. Rand's work does get at a crucial truth that almost everyone misses

.... Most defenses of free market capitalism are typically made in a utilitarian lens; partly because it's such an easy case to make and partly because that is the lens of most academic work in economics. And it is most certainly true that, yes, with some important caveats, the freer the markets, the more prosperous the polity.

But that is not the whole truth. The whole truth takes into account that part of our human nature is a deep drive to find meaning through work, productivity, and even creativity, and that the free enterprise system enables this. ....

This means that, much like democracy, capitalism is a deeply morally righteous system.

This discourse is almost never heard in contemporary society, certainly not in the realm of culture. And yet, for all its many shortcomings, it is found in 500-proof form in the works of Ayn Rand. And I think this is a key reason why so many experience her books as a revelation, despite all their shortcomings. [more]