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When Tribal Journalists Try to ‘Cancel’ Ayn Rand (Part 2)

The New Republic article about Rand, which we looked at in Part 1, stood out not primarily because of what it said about her, but in how it conveyed its message. The article put a tribal prejudice toward Rand above facts and logic. That same mindset is on display, even more starkly, in Amanda Marcotte’s Salon article, “Right-wingers finally got their Ayn Rand hero as president — and it’s this guy.”

Let me stress, again, that my goal is not to change your mind about Rand and her ideas, nor primarily to correct the many errors and misrepresentations in these articles (though I’ll point out some of them along the way). Instead, the point is to explain how the two articles are fundamentally uninterested in convincing any active-minded reader. Their aim, rather, is to affirm a preset narrative about Rand. These are worse than mere smears, because their tribal mindset represents the abandonment of rational persuasion as the goal of intellectual discussion.

Marcotte’s point is captured in the subtitle: “Conservatives finally have a leader who lives by Ayn Rand’s selfish philosophy, and he’s an embarrassing clown,” the clown being Donald Trump. But whatever you might think of Rand or of Trump, this is a claim that’s far from self-evident. It requires a real argument. Marcotte’s article offers no argument. It’s written for an audience that already partly or fully shares Marcotte’s preconceptions.

Disregarding Rand’s actual view

What would it take to build a case that Trump is the incarnation of Rand’s moral ideals? For a start, and at minimum, you’d need to grasp what Rand’s view actually is, why she holds it, and how her radical view relates to, and contrasts with, existing views in morality. Rand once summarized her system of ideas by saying that “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Part of what’s radical in Rand’s moral theory is that she argues for an individualist morality that is non-predatory.

Marcotte’s article offers no argument. It’s written for an audience that already partly or fully shares Marcotte’s preconceptions.

Each individual, in her view, is responsible for achieving his own happiness by his own effort and the use of his own mind — without sacrifices of anyone to anyone. That means a rational egoist neither surrenders his own values and goals to others, nor sacrifices others to himself. On Rand’s view, the egoist is someone guided by reason, pursuing creative achievement, building mutually beneficial relationships. It is nothing like the conventional view of a whim-driven brute who lies, cheats, and steals, walking over corpses to get his way.

From this brief indication of her view, it should be evident that what Rand means by “selfishness” is far different from what most people mean by that term. Regardless of whether one agrees with her conception, the fact is that Rand is saying something distinctive and new, and it takes work to understand it and think through what her morality does (and does not) look like in practice.

Marcotte, by contrast, evidently cannot imagine a moral ideal so dramatically at odds with conventional views. Apparently, the possibility of a non-predatory individualist is unreal to her, or else it’s pushed out of mind. Instead, Marcotte aims to patch together a narrative to affirm her prejudice against Rand. The goal is to portray Rand as a monster whose moral ideal, in practice, turns out to be a monster such as Trump.

A prejudice-driven narrative

To that end, Marcotte begins with a disturbing claim. Marcotte writes that Rand had “a schoolgirl crush” on a murderer, William Hickman, that she based a character on him in plans for an early story, and that she later “reworked her idea of the individualistic, contemptuous hero” into The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Marcotte’s smear operates in part by omitting important facts.

Since Rand’s mature views reject any form of predation, her youthful interest in Hickman is strange enough that if you are going to raise it, it demands thoughtful exploration. A multitude of questions spring to mind: What was the nature of Rand’s curiosity in him? Where did she articulate it? When was this? How does it relate to her mature, principled advocacy of individual rights as sacrosanct?

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None of these questions interests Marcotte, who slants the episode to smear Rand. Marcotte’s smear operates in part by omitting important facts. Let me indicate just five.

First, it’s a gross distortion to call Rand’s reaction a “schoolgirl crush,” which you can see for yourself in Rand’s own notes on the subject. She made those notes in her personal journals, which can be found in Journals of Ayn Rand, published long after her death. Across decades, Rand wrote voluminously in her journals to sketch ideas for characters, plays, stories, novels; to engage in “thinking on paper” for her own understanding; to distill lessons and conclusions from her experiences with people and events.

Second, she wrote these journal entries for an audience of exactly one — herself. In her journals she was continually forming, revising, changing, clarifying her views. Nothing in them was ever meant for publication, so it’s ludicrous to treat her journals as definitive statements of her considered view.

Third, Marcotte hand-wavingly notes that “fans are quick to argue” that Rand “didn’t endorse the murder,” but elides the fact that Rand herself, in her own journal notes, repudiates Hickman’s abhorrent crime.

Fourth, a relevant fact for understanding Rand’s interest in Hickman is that she was a fiction writer, and she was sketching ideas for a story. She was curious about the character and psychology of individuals, about what ideas and attitudes motivated them, in part for the sake of depicting the motivation of fictional characters. This is an issue central to the craft of writing fiction, which Rand (at the time, aged 23) was striving to master.

Fifth, it is impossible to read Rand’s notes about Hickman and the story she was planning without observing the influence of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche on the young Rand. That influence is manifest in the premise of the story and the lead character she envisioned for it (Rand uses concepts borrowed from Nietzsche and quotes him in her notes). Rand never got far in planning that story and decided to abandon it. Why? The “project was too alien to her deepest premises,” writes David Harriman, editor of Journals of Ayn Rand, who points out (along with other scholars) that Rand went on to discard Nietzsche’s philosophic ideas and explicitly repudiated them.

For Marcotte, such facts are pushed aside in the dash to affirm a preconception about Rand. The next step in that process is to link this fictional Rand to conservatism and President Trump.

Lumping Rand in with a “reactionary” movement

Marcotte wheels out the trope that Rand is the “backbone of modern conservativism.” This metaphor obscures a complicated reality, which I mentioned in Part 1, about the nature of Rand’s influence on conservatives and right-leaning folks. Moreover, there are abundant counterexamples that negate this trope. The aim of Marcotte’s article, however, is not to convince, but to reinforce preconceptions, and her intended audience is already primed to feel loathing at the mention of “conservatism.” That’s the emotional context Marcotte’s article works to activate.

Marcotte’s unwarranted lumping together of Rand with conservatism reflects a definite purpose. Rand’s philosophy, Marcotte writes, serves as a “pseudo-intellectual rationalization,” beloved by assorted Republicans, for a “reactionary movement that rose up to reject the feminist and anti-racist movements of the 20th century.” One giveaway here is the word reactionary.

In this mindset, it’s unimaginable that someone could have a view different from one’s own that is grounded in reasonable argument.

Even if you reject conservatism (as I do), Marcotte’s characterization of it betrays, not a reasoned opposition, but a tribal opposition. Were there conservatives who were racist and misogynistic? Yes, and there still are. But the sweeping claim in Marcotte’s article is that conservatives were “reactionary”: meaning, they stubbornly opposed progress. They could have had no legitimate basis for their concerns about, for example, the growth of government regulations, or the cost of burgeoning welfare programs, or the budget. Regardless of whether you share those concerns, some conservative intellectuals actually did voice reasoned objections to these developments. But for Marcotte and her intended audience, these outsiders, members of an opposing tribe, can be nothing but wrong and evil. In this mindset, it’s unimaginable that someone could have a view different from one’s own that is grounded in reasonable argument.

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In linking Rand with conservatism, Marcotte is uninterested in the fact — which contradicts her narrative — that Rand wrote at length about her philosophic opposition to the conservative movement (see, for instance, the essay “Conservatism: An Obituary”). What’s more, nowhere in Marcotte’s article will you learn that Rand was a fierce opponent of racism. Nor will you learn about Rand’s distinctive, profound opposition to the conventional notion that a woman’s place is in the home; or that a woman is somehow intellectually or morally inferior to a man. Among Rand’s fictional heroes are two women, Kira Argounova (in We the Living) and Dagny Taggart (in Atlas Shrugged), who shatter stereotyped roles for women. Long before it was imaginable in our culture, Dagny Taggart took it for granted that she could run a vast railroad network, and she did so superlatively; it was at most an afterthought for her that anyone might object. Kira Argounova, fascinated by buildings and bridges, wanted to be an engineer, and her will to achieve her goals in life was indomitable.

All of this, and more, Marcotte must brush aside in order to shoehorn Rand’s ideas into the same category as the “reactionary” right, the opposing political tribe that Marcotte and many of her readers hate. Doing so, in defiance of the facts, is part of Marcotte’s larger effort to present Donald Trump as the full, perfect embodiment of Rand’s moral theory of selfishness. Linking Trump and Rand serves to smear each with the taken-for-granted evil of the other.

Trump embodies Rand’s ideals?

What’s the argument for that link? There is none and, tellingly, no attempt to engage with obvious objections or counterarguments. What Marcotte conveys is a disdain for the sheer possibility that anyone could hold a different view on the subject. Regardless of your assessment of President Trump, the claim that he’s the embodiment of Ayn Rand’s moral ideas should give pause to anyone with even an elementary grasp of her outlook.

What leaps off the pages of Atlas Shrugged is not that Rand glamorizes all businesspeople, but rather that she draws a bright moral dividing line. On one side are productive business leaders, who use their minds to create real value, exchanging it in trade for mutual advantage. It is such producers who are the business heroes she valorizes for their achievements.

On the other side of that moral line are the businessmen who rely on political pull to handicap their competitors, who extort protections and corporate welfare, and who lie, cheat, and exploit others in their grubbing for unearned wealth. Such villains, in today’s world, embody the scourge of “cronyism.”

Marcotte’s disdain for argument, for evidence, indeed, for the intellect of her readers is blatant in what she takes as a credible source on Rand’s ideas.

Just on the basis of this sketch of one aspect of Rand’s view, Donald Trump is far from an obvious manifestation of her moral theory. The evidence, in my view, is that his actions and statements contradict the virtue of selfishness; that, for instance, Trump’s business career has relied on pull peddling and that, as president, he feeds that “cronyism” dynamic. My colleague Ben Bayer has argued convincingly that Trump negates Rand’s view of selfishness; and others still have pointed out ways in which Trump is actually more like an Ayn Rand villain.

But my aim here is not to convince you of either of those points. Rather it’s to indicate that any claim that Trump embodies Rand’s concept of selfishness would need to build an argument for that, and take seriously counterpoints and obvious objections — if your goal is to convince.

That’s precisely what Marcotte disdains. I say disdain, because any reputable magazine would expect its writers to Google the topic they’re pitching, to see if anyone’s written on it before. Try it yourself; you should find at least two articles on the subject by my colleague Onkar Ghate. One evaluates the Trump phenomenon generally; the other considers what Rand might have thought of Trump. You might also find my article on how Trump’s foreign policy clashes with Rand’s philosophy. And again, we at ARI are hardly the only ones to voice our perspective on this issue. Marcotte, however, does not even gesture toward engaging with these contrasting views; doing so would imply that there could be a credible view different from her preconception.

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Marcotte’s disdain for argument, for evidence, indeed, for the intellect of her readers is blatant in what she takes as a credible source on Rand’s ideas. For a credible third-party source, where does Marcotte turn? To one of a number of the established, published scholars of Rand’s ideas? No. To an expert on the field of ethics, who has some awareness of how Rand’s ideas relate to the intellectual landscape? No.

Who, then? Marcotte turns to a guy with a blog. She cites someone who posted blog entries while reading his way through Atlas Shrugged. To pretend that this blog is a credible “source” is journalistic malpractice. If a journalist wrote about, say, Marx’s Das Kapital, or Darwin’s Origin of Species — to take two influential works that defied conventional thinking — and presented a random blogger with no evident expertise as an authority on the subject, it would be laughable.

An urge to “cancel” Rand

What Marcotte’s article exhibits — even more blatantly than Sammon’s piece in the New Republic — is a tribalist mindset.

The tribal mind is insular and keen to stay that way. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion, often hostility. The sheer possibility that outsiders might have different views and beliefs, and hold them for good reasons, is simply alien. That’s largely because the tribalist himself has fastened onto his beliefs and pieties, not through a thoughtful weighing of the evidence and by following the logic, but through conformity with the group. There’s just what his own tribe believes. All else has to be wrong. It’s beyond the pale, worthy only of contempt and disdain.

There’s an underlying commonality between a Trump rally and the Marcotte and Sammon articles: they put a tribal narrative above facts and logic.

We can observe two important consequences of this tribalist mindset on display in Marcotte’s article about Rand. One is Marcotte’s disdain for facts and logic. A tribalist sees no need to convince others of his views: why take the effort of trying to communicate with outsiders, who by virtue of being outside the tribe must be wrong? Besides, if he himself didn’t need evidence and logic to swallow his group’s beliefs and pieties, why would anyone else?

Second, the tribalist does feel a strong need to affirm and reinforce — for himself and fellow tribe members — that their ways and beliefs are right, and that outsiders are wrong, if not evil, too.

A critical reading of Marcotte’s and Sammon’s articles makes clear that a major, if not the prime, aim is to rally certain readers. To activate them emotionally, not cognitively. For those readers, the common takeaway is that, despite Rand’s distinctive views, she can be lumped in with the hated right-wing/conservative tribe.

These articles offer the reassurance that, despite Rand’s enduring prominence and ongoing cultural influence, she is unworthy of serious attention. That the Objectivist movement is nosediving. That Rand, finally, is “canceled.”

A progressive equivalent of a Trump rally

What the Marcotte and Sammon articles do to Rand in print, Donald Trump does to his enemies in speeches at loyalist rallies. The approach is the same. The president can spellbind the audience with innuendo, pseudo-facts, and arbitrary assertions, precisely because they reinforce a conclusion many already came in with: Trump is right, his opponents in the enemy tribe are victimizing him.

No attempt is made to convince anyone in the stands. The conclusions, so congenial to the tribe, are already known. The facts — or rather, innuendo, insinuation, hints and arbitrary allegations — are conjured up, trimmed, shorn of context, bent, distorted to affirm the tribe’s common prejudices against its enemies. There’s an underlying commonality between a Trump rally and the Marcotte and Sammon articles: they put a tribal narrative above facts and logic.

There are fascinating questions to explore about the impact of Ayn Rand’s ideas and their cultural influence. Such questions, however, are shoved to the wayside in the Marcotte and Sammon articles. The driving impulse to “cancel” Rand in the eyes of their tribal audience — hardly original to these articles — is its own kind of cultural indicator.

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Elan Journo

Elan Journo is a director and senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. His latest book is titled What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Elan is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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