Monday, July 11, 2011

Spinning in Her Grave

Edward Little is an Episcopalian bishop who owes a lot, he explains, to Ayn Rand. It's because of Rand that Little became a Christian. Those familiar with Rand's hostility to Christianity may find this somewhat perplexing, yet, as C.S. Lewis observed (and Little affirms) a young man who wishes to remain an atheist cannot be too careful about his reading. Here's the introduction to Little's story:
Ayn Rand changed my life. When I embraced her philosophy, Objectivism, the conversion was far more dramatic than my decision, several years later, to follow Jesus Christ—more dramatic, but in the end transitory. Yet Rand, the novelist, philosopher, and uncompromising atheist, inadvertently opened a door for the gospel. I don't believe dead people spin in their graves, but if they did and she could read these words, I imagine Rand would be twirling violently.

As many have noted, Rand's ethic of rational self-interest is incompatible with the gospel, and leads to social as well as spiritual disaster. "Most observers see Rand as a political and economic philosopher," wrote Gary Moore last year in Christianity Today. "I believe that she was first and foremost an anti-Christian philosopher." A six-foot dollar sign wreath towered over her casket, Moore pointed out, an icon of the false gospel she labored to proclaim. I agree entirely that Christianity and Objectivism are utterly incompatible. But my gratitude to Rand remains profound.

In the spring of 1962, an awkward and philosophically oriented 15-year-old raised in an utterly secular home, I read The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. Those books triggered a philosophical (and, unknowingly, spiritual) revolution. One evening, immersed in Rand's writings, I listened on the radio to a re-broadcast of a lecture she had delivered a year earlier at the University of Wisconsin, during a symposium called "Ethics in Our Time."

Even at a distance of 48 years, I can still hear her heavily accented voice as she quoted from John Galt's speech, the long and detailed summary of Objectivism that appears near the end of Atlas Shrugged: "Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. Yes, you are bearing punishment for your evil …. Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality … but to discover it."

For three years I followed Rand, read every word she published, studied Objectivism and its moral, political, and economic implications, and even tried to imitate the heroes in Rand's novels. Several times, the central character in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is accused of staring at people, his piercing eyes making the novel's villains feel judged and found wanting. And so I practiced widening my eyes and keeping them open for extended periods. No one, however, seemed daunted by my gaze.

Because my family lived in New York City, I was able to enroll in a 20-session "Basics of Objectivism" course at the Nathaniel Branden Institute. (Branden, an early Rand associate and a psychologist by training, spent many years teaching Objectivism in partnership with Rand.) The course included sessions on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and political and economic theory, with a heavy emphasis on laissez-faire capitalism. When Branden finished his lecture, Rand herself would often answer questions.

Among the memorabilia from that period of my life is a scrap of paper with Rand's autograph, the letters sharp and angular. I also enrolled in "Objectivist Economics," taught by a very young Alan Greenspan.

My commitment to Rand and her philosophy, however, did not survive my early years in college. Two figures intervened.
The two figures were Plato and Jesus, and their effect on Little would, he writes, have Rand spinning in her grave. It's an interesting story.

Questioning Patriotism

Timothy Dalrymple at Patheos responds to those who demand that one not question their patriotism with the reply that he's darn well going to question it, and good for him, says I:
When “Don’t question my patriotism!” became the imperative of choice for the stylish liberal in the run-up to the 2004 election, I was a doctoral student at Harvard. The very same faculty who spent half their time indicting the United States as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism struck an indignant pose when they imagined their patriotism was under review. Whether they were offended at the allegation that they did not love their country, or offended at the suggestion that they should, varied from professor to professor.

Now, I can imagine the outrage of my liberal friends as they prepare to tell me how the Star-Spangled Banner brings a lump to their throats and a soaring feeling to their hearts. So let me clarify that I’m not questioning the patriotism of Democrats. Plenty of Democrats have demonstrated their patriotism beyond reproach. Neither am I attacking all liberals, or all ultra-liberals. I’m not attacking anyone. It’s no sin to be unpatriotic. This is merely an observation that many of liberalism’s intellectual elites are (1) deeply uncomfortable with the concept of patriotism, and (2) find America especially undeserving of love and loyalty.
Exactly so, which is why they have such contempt for middle American Tea Partiers and their like.
The liberal elites of whom I speak witness public displays of patriotism amongst the masses and fear that that kind of patriotism is tantamount to nationalism, and it leads to war and totalitarianism because it persuades the benighted masses to defend their country and support their leaders without question. Flags and lapel pins and the pledge of allegiance, not to mention Memorial Day and Independence Day, are just so many pieces of propaganda that serve to raise children in automatic loyalty to the machinery of the state.
Dalrymple touches upon an interesting irony here. Recall that one of the charges leveled at Tea Partiers by their cultured despisers is that reluctance to ride the Obama social and economic trainwreck is evidence that conservatives actually despise the country. Frank Schaeffer presents us with a paradigmatic example of this peculiar point of view in a recent interview at MSNBC.

So, if you question their patriotism because they seem to harbor little love for this country, its history, its people or its principles they wax indignant at the implication that they're not patriots, but if you disagree with their political ideology they question your patriotism.

At any rate, Dalrymple raises some good questions in his essay. Here are two:
Do some forms of patriotism encourage unquestioning obedience, while others are more salutary? Or, ... what differentiates patriotism from nationalism, or patriotism from idolatry?
Here's another that he might well have asked: How long can a nation survive if no one cherishes anything about it?

There's more good stuff at the link. Check it out.