Sunday, 21 October 2007

Independent of the Truth?

Here's a disappointing example of unprofessional journalism - a factually innacurate attack on Ayn Rand ineptly disguised as a news story:

The Independent, 12 October 2007
"Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness"
By Leonard Doyle
[Several paragraphs at the start, asking why Americans don't vote for welfare-statists, snipped.]

So what's the matter with America?

The answer may be contained in the writings of the Russian emigrée and radical libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. Two decades after her death, she remains the darling of right-thinking Americans and sales of her novels, paens of praise to unbridled capitalism, are even outselling The Da Vinci Code.

More copies of her book Atlas Shrugged are sold now than when she was the literary pied piper of Wall Street. In his early thirties, no less a figure than Alan Greenspan, who married one of her closest friends and went on to become the chairman of the Federal Reserve fawned over her. On Saturday nights he made his way to Rand's deliberately darkened apartment in Manhattan to sit in rapt admiration as passages of her novels were read aloud to her conservative salon.

[several paragraphs about Alan Greenspan snippped]

Some argue that it was Rand herself rather than her philosophical ideas that held the public gaze. Biographies penned by spurned lovers and collections of her letters reveal a difficult personality, alternatively passionate and cold. A woman who kept lists of sworn enemies. She enjoyed kinky sex with swinging couples and enforced a cult of loyalty among her followers.

Rand was born in 1905 in Russia and her comfortable life was turned upside down when the Bolsheviks attacked her father's pharmacy, declaring his business to be state property. She had fled the Soviet Union by1926 and soon arrived in Hollywood. There she looked
though the studio gates to see the director Cecil B. DeMille on the set filming a silent movie, King of Kings.

She talked her way onto the set, and got a job as an extra, later becoming a junior screenwriter. There she also met and married the writer Frank O' Connor.

For a few years she wrote screenplays as well as novels that failed to sell. It was only in 1943 that her career took off when word-of-mouth campaign got The Fountainhead noticed and put her on the road to success.

Rand's most influential book, Atlas Shrugged begins in a recession. To save the economy her hero, John Galt, calls for a strike by intellectuals against government interference. Factories, farms and shops close. Riots break out as food becomes scarce. Rand herself said she "set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it treats them" and to portray "what happens to a world without them".

The book was published into a welter of criticism. The New York Times critic denounced it as "written out of hate" and called it "a triumph of English as a second language". Both conservatives and liberal critics disparaged it, with the right condemning its promotion of a godless ethic and the left condemning its message of "greed is good". Rand cried every day as bad reviews poured in.

But now she is back in fashion of a sort. Her theories have made inroads into academia. Objectivism is taught at more than 30 universities, with fellowships at several leading philosophy departments. The Ayn Rand Institute has a war chest of over $7m to promote her ideas and more than a million high school pupils are being given free copies of her novels to read.

[several paragraphs on Ayn Rand's influence and the continuing high sales of Atlas Shrugged snippped]

One of the characters in Atlas Shrugged, summarises her philosophy of Objectivism with the following oath: "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine."

[one paragraph snipped]

One way or another Rand's ode to American individualism has made her one of the towering figures of US political thought in the late 20th century.

By rejecting altruism and embracing selfishness she rejected the Judaeo-Christian underpinning of the religious right. The only moral obligation a person had was to his or her own happiness. That meant capitalism should be given a free rein with an unregulated market economy.

She pushed America's cult of individualism into uncharted waters where ruthless self-interest and disdain for poorer members of society were the guiding principles.

Her admirers partly credit her revived appeal to an absence of ideas coming from the US left: "Today's left doesn't have anything positive to offer to young people," says Yaron Brook, director of the Ayn Rand Institute. "When they were socialists, there was at least something they were fighting for, and they believed in a right and a wrong [snip] Ayn Rand is the only voice that offers a secular absolutist morality with a positive vision and agenda, for individuals and for society as a whole."

The coming presidential election will reveal the extent to which ordinary poor Americans will proudly vote themselves out of jobs, off the land and ensure that their children can never afford to go to university or afford health care. It happened in the last two presidential elections, and the Ayn Rand Institute is banking that it will happen again.
Aeon McNulty, a businessman, wrote to the editor. In a letter too long to be published, though not long enough to enumerate all that was wrong with Leonard Doyle's article, he summarised the reporting errors:
Sir: the article on Ayn Rand entitled "Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness" by Leonard Doyle (12th October) contained the following errors.

1. Ayn Rand is categorically not a "libertarian". She repeatedly expressed her profound disagreement and disgust with libertarians, branding them "hippies of the right".

2. The phrase "biographies by spurned lovers" is severely misleading because the use of the plural directly implies that there has been more than one. In fact, although there are certainly many biographies of Miss Rand in print, there is only one penned by a former lover: the bitter and biased account by Nathaniel Branden which was published after her death.

3. Miss Rand did not keep "lists of sworn enemies". What she kept, and frequently wrote about, were notes on intellectual ideas that she disagreed with. Since ideas come from people it's entirely unsurprising that these notes often contained the names of their proponents.

4. There is no evidence that she "enjoyed kinky sex with swinging couples". Miss Rand did not view sex as a smutty or casual indulgence. She regarded it as a profound expression of joy and affection. At the time of her alleged affair with Mr Branden she was, by all accounts, deeply in love with him. There is no indication ofany other extramarital sexual activity during her life.

5. Frank O'Connor, her husband for fifty years, was an actor not a

6. John Galt (the hero in Atlas Shrugged) does not call a strike in
order to "save the economy", that is obviously never his aim (or the result), he explicitly calls it to free the "men of the mind" from the "morality of self-sacrifice".

7. "Greed is good" is not a phrase attributable to Miss Rand, she never said it. It comes from the well-known 1987 film, "Wall Street".

8. Miss Rand did not cry "every day as bad reviews poured in". This is lifted directly from a ridiculously arbitrary assertion by Harriet Rubin that appeared in a recent article in The New York Times. To those that knew Miss Rand the very notion of her crying over a bad review is laughable.

9. The following is a misquotation, "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another human being, or ask another human being to live for mine." It should instead be: "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

10. It is claimed that the Ayn Rand Institute is hoping for (indeed "banking" on) another Republican victory. It is a matter of record that the ARI has been a consistently harsh critic of the Republican Party since the institute was founded.

Thank you for your time and attention.
The writer Ed Cline agreed. In his own letter to the editor he said:
The errors present in Leonard Doyle's "Guru of Greed: The cult of selfishness" (12 October) are too numerous to list in a letter. These errors center on what Ayn Rand did or did not do, on what she said or did not say. To cite one instance, she did not cry "every day as bad reviews poured in" of her novel Atlas Shrugged. If she did anything, she shrugged. And, her novel is having the last laugh; after 50 years, it is still selling strong and influencing people, while all those smarmy, vitriolic critics are gone.
My contribution was:
The title of Leonard Doyle's article "Guru of greed: The cult of selfishness" set the tone for the absurd assertions that followed. Ayn Rand identified rationality as the basic virtue and the source of all others. In her philosophy of Objectivism, selfishness is the virtue based on the facts about what man requires for his proper survival. To call rational self interest a cult, and Ayn Rand a guru, is a profound misrepresentation of the greatest philosopher of the modern era.

DSA Murray, an artist, targeted misapprehensions about Objectivism in two separate letters - first on 13th October:

Contrary to Leonard Doyle's article, Ayn Rand was not an advocate of the commonly held view of "selfishness".

Through her integrated philosophy, Objectivism, Ms Rand rejected the false alternative of sacrificing others to yourself (Nietzschean behaviour), or sacrificing yourself to others (altruism), by advocating a rational self-interest of neither living as a profiteer of sacrifice, nor as a victim, but as a voluntary "trader" of values for mutual benefit.

By upholding a "benevolent universe premise", Ms Rand argued that it is not "selfishness" that is the route of malevolent behaviour, but precisely the absence of a "self" e.g.,
the need to be admired, envied, feared, thought great, etc., by others.

She opposed altruism, which she defined as, "service to others as the moral justification of a man's existence and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty", because it destroys genuine benevolence and is the foundation of all forms of tyranny. Indeed, by elevating the idea that helping others is an act of selflessness, she argued, altruism implies that a man can have no selfish concern for others, that morally an act of goodwill must be an act of sacrifice, in effect destroying any authentic benevolence among men.
and then on 15th October (in response to somone else's letter):
...Rand was not opposed to acts of kindness towards others, indeed, she upheld a "benevolent universe premise" based on "rational self-interest". What she opposed
was a sacrificial moral code that turns men into either profiteers of sacrifice or victims.

She argued that by elevating the idea that helping others is an act of selflessness, altruism implies that a man can have no selfish concern for others, that morally an act of goodwill must be an act of sacrifice, in effect destroying any authentic benevolence among men.
The Independent, to its credit, did publish this last. As Daryl explained to its letters editor, "I don't expect The Independent to necessarily agree with, or fully understand Objectivism, (it requires major study), but I do expect the chance to correct any editorial errors or misconceptions about Ayn Rand's life and philosophy."

Note: all hyperlinks inserted by Valz.


  1. Another notable error is the statement that during the 1930s Ayn Rand "wrote screenplays as well as novels that failed to sell". Her film script Red Pawn, though never produced, was sold to Universal Pictures in 1932. Her play Night of January 16th was produced on Broadway in 1934. Her novel We the Living, published in 1936 in America and 1937 in Britain, where it sold well - as did her novella Anthem, published there in 1938.

    My source for all these facts is Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living, edited by Robert Mayhew. See "Publishing We the Living" by Richard E Ralston and "Red Pawn: Ayn Rand's Other Story of Soviet Russia" by Jena Trammell. Their own sources are carefully documented.

  2. jlvermeer@verizon.net2:34 pm

    yes, yes, I read most of Rand's work as a college student in the 50's when we all fawned over her. Now I am not so sure I agree with her philosophy that much. There's a place for it, to be sure, she was a strong, clear and mesmerizing voice, but there are more people who AREN'T like her, DON'T have her talents, aggressions, abilities, creativity, genius, whathaveyou, and it's those I am more concerned about at the endstage of my life.
    Rand would have been a Republican all the way, but could she have stomached the Bush Republicans and their reckless waste of American resources? I hardly think so. Were she here today there would be much for her to say, and where she would stand with current issues in our culture would be interesting.
    Personally, I think the right wing has become thugish and anti-intellectual, with a brutal, selfish and Rev. Mad dog Phelps mentality of wound and divide.
    My age-mates find we as a nation are at the end of our great and principled era, may time prove them wrong.