Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ayn Rand's serial killer hero



There are a couple of things I find interesting about this. First, it surprises me that so many Republicans can idolize this woman, while completely ignoring the fact that she was a staunch atheist.

Oh, I can understand getting ideas from everyone, while not agreeing with them about everything. But so many people on the right really seem to worship Ayn Rand. That's a little different.

Now from my perspective, I think she gives atheists a bad name. But we atheists are a diverse bunch with diverse views. We have no dogma. In the latest video from The Atheist Experience, for example, one of the callers is an atheist opposed to gay marriage.

Yes, much of the opposition to gay rights is based on religion, but that doesn't mean that all atheists will automatically take the other side. Atheists don't believe that a god or gods exist. Period. Any other similarities are, at most, a side effect of that. (Since most of us base our non-belief on the lack of evidence, most of us probably use evidence and reason when it comes to our other opinions, too. But unfortunately, that's not inevitable.)

So the fact that Ayn Rand was an atheist makes no difference to me in evaluating her other positions. But at a time when pretty much any deviation from right-wing orthodoxy gets Republicans accused of being traitors - from others within their own party - I'm amazed that these people can completely ignore Rand's position on religion.

You know, I suspect that this shows the factionalism hidden in the seemingly-monolithic GOP. Many Republicans are religious fundamentalists, culture warriors determined to turn America into a Christian nation, as they imagine it. But many others are equally determined on turning America into an oligarchy, a nation of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy.

Many Republicans are eager supporters of both factions, no doubt - believers in that nonsensical prosperity theology (which would seem to contradict most of what the Bible says about wealth). But I suspect that most, on both sides, are simply willing to use the other side in order to gain political power.

Thus, the theocrats are willing to give tax cuts to the rich, because the rich fund the party. Ayn Rand supporters - the wealthy and their hangers-on - are willing to let the religious nuts rail against homosexuality and the separation of church and state, because those true believers are their the foot-soldiers. That's where the votes come from to get those tax cuts for the rich. It's an unholy alliance.

Well, that's my hypothesis, anyway. Of course, I don't think any of these people are too rational, so I wouldn't actually expect them to be consistent. In both cases, they're faith-based, so I suppose I shouldn't expect that holding contradictory beliefs would bother them much. Still, this distinction would explain why Rand's atheism hasn't been a problem for them.

The other point that interests me about this video is that it demonstrates perhaps my biggest problem with libertarians. As I've said before, I've never known a libertarian who didn't go completely off the deep end, following their philosophy to its most absurd conclusions. Well, Ayn Rand clearly seems to show this tendency, too.

Leaving aside the question of whether William Edward Hickman can really be considered a "serial killer" (the truth is plenty bad enough!), it's just absurd that Rand could have found anything admirable about him, let alone consider him a "superman." Hickman was a complete sociopath. That's not a good model for a human being. (I can't believe I even have to say that!)

But this is where Ayn Rand - and her libertarian followers - really get it wrong. Human beings are social animals. We evolved as social animals and we remain social animals. We live in groups. We survive as a group, not as individuals.

Our fundamental characteristic, speech, was the key development that made human societies wildly successful. Other animals use tools, but only human beings can talk to each other. Sociopaths aren't the ideal humans. They're aberrant individuals. They're sick. They're missing what's essential in normal human beings.

Even hermits are aberrant human beings, really. For better or worse, we are social animals. And our modern governments are only the latest manifestation of social organization that's been the key to human survival since humans first evolved (and even before that - look at chimpanzee societies, for example).

Ignoring all that for some theory of a selfish hero, striving only for himself, is completely nuts. But even crazier is following this thinking off a cliff, so that you consider a murdering sociopath - a man who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and then, after the ransom had been paid, returned her dismembered and gutted body to her parents - a "superman," simply because he had no conscience!

Hickman was about as far from a "superman" as you can get. How did Rand go completely off the deep end like this? Well, that's one of the problems with using reason without evidence. Reason without evidence can end up in a complete flight of fancy. Rand was right about the value of reason, but it must be reason and evidence, together. That's the only way to stay grounded in reality.

Unfortunately, Rand's followers tend to suffer from that same flaw. All too often, they'll follow their "reason" into complete idiocy. (Just look at Paul Ryan's budget plan. Or Tim Pawlenty's tax proposals.)

Reason can become just as crazy as faith, if it's not kept restrained by evidence. That's been the gift of the modern scientific method. Even the ancients, often enough, recognized the value of reason. But by and large, they didn't match that with real-world evidence.

3 comments:

Rena said...

You know, there's definitely a reason I've never read Ayn Rand. People keep spoiling me for stuff. Which book features the kidnapping and murder?(Okay, I lie slightly, I skimmed through the really horrible "We" rip off of hers, Anthem.)

Also, comparing people who are asocial (or socially incompetent and introverted like me) with sociopaths is a pretty shitty thing to do, my friend. Being overwhelmed by too many people talking at once is in no way similar to not understanding that there are other people beside one's self.

Chimeradave said...

He wasn't comparing loners or hermits to sociopaths. He was saying that they are aberrant because humans are social animals.

And he didn't say anything about introverts, you're putting words into his mouth.

Being an introvert isn't the same as being a hermit. My wife is introverted, but she loves having a small group of friends.

WCG said...

Thanks, John.

Rena, I certainly didn't say that introverts are sociopaths, or even that hermits are. Hermits are "aberrant," meaning atypical, because most people don't live like that. But that implies nothing about pathology.

I'm an introvert myself, and rather inept socially. I do much of my socializing online these days (which clearly shows that I'm still a social animal). Still, even people who try to have no contact with other people (nice trick, that) aren't necessarily sociopaths. And I'm quite sure I didn't imply otherwise.

Ayn Rand exalted the individual above the group to such an extent that she could praise an actual sociopath for having no conscience and no empathy towards other people. To her, the individual was everything. (This was a real-life murderer, not someone in one of her books.)

Now I'm strong proponent of individual rights, but I don't go completely off the deep end like that. I recognize that we're social animals, that we live in groups, that we survive as a society. And our governments are just ways we've organized that.

We can disagree about the details, but human beings need some rules, some structure, in order to live together peacefully. Because we do live together. We're social animals, even the most introverted, the most socially inept of us.

Many people praise a lone wolf,* because our culture values the individual (and rightly so, although teamwork is also valuable). But praising a sociopath, a man with no empathy at all for anyone else? That's taking the admiration of individuality to insane heights.

* Ironically, wolves are also social animals. A lone wolf is an aberrant individual. Healthy, successful wolves live in packs with a clearly defined social structure.