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Wolf DeVoon

What I think of Ayn Rand

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A letter from Wolf DeVoon to a friend

I've been active here for some years. It's one of the few places I enjoy, although I've had to take time away for reasons that I've forgotten. Recent discussions prompted me to write an essay for Brant Gaede. He's been exceedingly kind to me in book reviews, uniquely so. But there's some space between us on questions of the first order. Perhaps I've failed in the past 500,000+ words to express what I think of Rand's legacy. I'll try again.

I have nothing to say about Ayn Rand as a student in Russia, or her experience in America. It was contemptible that her private life in New York was exposed; worse that Peikoff became an "intellectual heir." Rand was a novelist. To the best of my knowledge, no one else alive today could be compared with her as a storyteller. I'm aware that Miss Rand wrote a great deal of nonfiction. I read most of it long ago. Very nice, especially The Ayn Rand Letter and her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Tremendous personal achievements.

But it remains that Ayn Rand was a novelist.

Consider We The Living. Leo becomes a wastrel, a cynical playboy, playing a dangerous game for the hell of it, because nothing matters to him any longer, not even Kira. An honorable and powerful man, Comrade Taganov, is destroyed by love. Comrade Sonia and her ilk win. At the time We The Living appeared, it was seen as anguished criticism of Soviet communism, with little comment on the soap opera story she told about a love triangle, a woman who sold her body to save a man she loved. Please note that Kira, Leo, and Andrei were actuated by private passions, acted outside the agreed rules of morality, political advantage, and government.

The narrative achievement of The Fountainhead lay in honoring a man who wished to build something beautiful and original and paid a heavy price for it. Three men helped him: Heller, Enright and Lansing. Only one woman loved him. She couldn't bear the struggle he faced as a great man shunned by the world in which they lived, threw herself away, sold herself to the lowest bidder. She did not expect Gail Wynand to fall in love, hard. The novel is littered with private actors who twist levers of power, casually manipulating government officials. Roark's trial is totally unreal, acquitted 12-0, excused from bombing a big public housing project by jury nullification. If I wrote such fantastic hooey, I'd be too embarrassed to publish it. Yet the story of The Fountainhead became intensely important to me as a young filmmaker, offered a moral justification for intransigent devotion, an inspiration that sustained me for decades as a pioneer, price no object. Please note that The Fountainhead is a story of private action, little or nothing to do with government or lawful behavior. Rand didn't care. Her talent as a storyteller consisted of showing us private life. In the same period, she wrote a play that had two endings, and she didn't care whether Karen was convicted of murder or acquitted. It did not matter what the law said or what a jury decided. Karen loved Bjorn, period.

"The Strike" (Atlas Shrugged) began as a simple idea, that the world is moved by private men and women, a few who create something new and are beset with opposition, exclusively by government officials and the masses who grant them arbitrary power. Ayn Rand was devoted to the proposition that private life matters, government does not.

I acknowledge that Atlas Shrugged also contains a theory of metaphysics, clear-eyed defense of reason and science, firm rejection of "social justice" and politics. It is important to see that all of it failed to make the slightest dent in American political history, and I regard all of her subsequent efforts to elaborate a cogent theory of government as a product of seduction by Branden and other acolytes who were enamored of The Fountainhead and something else, far less respectable. The novelist quit writing fiction, became a guru of ethics and political theory, hoping to attract academic interest in right and wrong, a project that failed to achieve anything except a fussy battle with Rothbard and tenured pranksters like Block and Hoppe.

Rand's intellectual legacy doesn't bother me. A is A, agreed. Evil requires the sanction of the victim, agreed. I lived in Galt's Gulch for 7 years, entirely free of government control. I am entitled to say with conviction that man has a fundamental right to liberty.

I will not repeat myself concerning the rule of law, except to say again that Ayn Rand did not consider it. She saw the world as an ethical landscape apart from technicalities of due process or common law, although she might have agreed with an ancient common law decision that held "A dead thing can do no felony" (knives and swords cannot be blamed for killing), an English precedent that took hundreds of years to seep into American jurisprudence. In the Massachuetts Bay Colony, a canoe was blamed for murder, deemed an instrument of Satan.

So. We have a slightly different view of Ayn Rand. She told stories about passion and genius and romance threatened by vicious fags (ahem, lifelong bachelors) like Ellsworth Tooey and Wesley Mouch, who wanted nothing for themselves as individuals, the root of all evil. They craved government of others, slave masters detached from responsibility, totally unearned, which gays and their welfare state allies achieved in California and New York and Supreme Court decisions that will never be revisited. Government rules with an iron fist, has title to your property and happiness for the satisfaction of looters, civil servants, and queer folk.

I sketched a method of providing for national defense by a publicly-traded corporation and a constitution that guaranteed an enduring right to be heard, to sue or be sued, to complain of rights violation, etc -- an organizing principle for the private practice of law and the lawyers chosen to quit private practice and sit as impartial judges to uphold fundamental fairness.

It doesn't matter whether you or anyone else see merit in those ideas. Likewise, it doesn't matter a hoot what any of us think about Rand's proposals for government, or her assertions of legal right and wrong. My constitutional law professor in Madison was fond of repeating that an assertion is not an argument, said it in class almost daily. Rand was ignored by the American electorate, smeared by gays like Gore Vidal and Chris Sciabarra, and pilloried by John Aglialoro's wretched movies. Paul Ryan had to disavow her influence. Game over, as they say in queer dominated Silicon Valley.

What Rand achieved was superb portraits of private valor and sorrow and romance. Her ideas about government were incoherent assertions, belied by Roark and Ragnar and Francisco, men who went to war as lawless pirates, fighting armies of innocent bystanders. Galt starved millions to death, destroyed a nation. It paled in significance to his love affair with Dagny.

How quaint, a heterosexual love story. Boy meets girl.

- Wolf DeVoon

 

Gore Vidal (Esquire, 1961)

Quote

 

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the "freedom is slavery" sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her "philosophy," but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the "welfare" state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you're dumb or incompetent that's your lookout.

She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other's money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand's second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which ahs figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon "I" is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. Now the dictionary definition of "moral" is: "concerned with the distinction between right and wrong" as in "moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform." Though Miss Rand's grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms. Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.

Ayn Rand's "philosophy" is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep.

 

 

Sciabarra on Ayn Rand

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYJCSHpLtOc

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You might need a link fix as I couldn't find S on AR by clicking on it.

--Brant

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Rand was centered on morality--ethics--not law.

That's where Objectivism needs the most work--not law.

Your mileage may differ.

--Brant

Rand and ethics: should bes displace ises and the why of the ises or even what are the ises

you can carry it over to law but not too well if law is the be all of it all

she got halfway there but got stuck in deductive absolutism

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It took a while for me to grasp what you said, but I think I follow. Surprised that be and is are a problem. Not is and ought?

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14 minutes ago, Brant Gaede said:

Rand was centered on morality--ethics--not law.

That's where Objectivism needs the most work--not law.

Your mileage may differ.

--Brant

Rand and ethics: should bes displace ises and the why of the ises or even what are the ises

you can carry it over to law but not too well if law is the be all of it all

she got halfway there but got stuck in deductive absolutism

Law as it is practiced,  formed  and used in English speaking countries is derived from English Common Law which is an exercise in practical application and induction.  Common Law is law made up from cases as decided by the judges in the various courts.  It is sound because it was derived from specific disputes and actions  and  corrections to bad practice were made as things went along.  It is the soundest law ever developed.  It is founded on practice and consequences,  not on high fallutin'  abstract principles. 

All attempts to ground ethics and morality on natural  laws  have failed.  There are too many differences in ethical systems  as they evolved.  The basic physical laws of nature do not imply a universally acceptable  system of ethical principles.  Any attempt to derive ethics  and morality will do exactly as you wrote  -- it will get stuck in deductive absolutism.  Abstract logic will not yield a universally accepted system of ethics either.  To put a point on it, there is no a priori system of ethics that will be accepted or practiced by all.   But free falling masses accelerate the same (or very close to the same)  everywhere in the world.  So the laws of falling bodies do follow from basic physical laws but the rules of ethics do not. 

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Gore Vidal  overlooked the reasonable and workable middle ground,  which was first publicized by Rabbi Hillel about 2500 years ago.

If I am not for myself,  who is for me?

If I am only for myself,  what am I?

If not now,  then when?   

The correct way is the way that balances self interest  with  respect for the rights, lives and property of other.  It is the middle path. 

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12 minutes ago, BaalChatzaf said:

Law as it is practiced,  formed  and used in English speaking countries is derived from English Common Law which is an exercise in practical application and induction.  Common Law is law made up from cases as decided by the judges in the various courts.

Please don't try to help on topics you don't know in depth, Bob. Thanks.

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6 hours ago, wolfdevoon said:

It took a while for me to grasp what you said, but I think I follow. Surprised that be and is are a problem. Not is and ought?

Should-be (ought).

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2 hours ago, anthony said:

Should-be (ought).

I don't see much of a problem. If someone is an asshole, he should be shunned. If a loved one is in peril, she should be defended.

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7 hours ago, wolfdevoon said:

I don't see much of a problem. If someone is an asshole, he should be shunned. If a loved one is in peril, she should be defended.

That pre-supposes a person and his mind, one who judges *who* is the asshole to be shunned, and *who* is to be loved and defended. What "ought" one to do with the "is"? By what standards (ethics).

Brings me back to values, and The Fountainhead. The individual (it is clear Rand espouses) is the one and only spring (fountainhead) of value. The top value in himself as beginning and end in himself--the values he creates--the values he finds(chooses)--the value he and his work is to others.

"The Fountainhead is a story of private action..." You wrote, accurately I thought. That's the whole point! All individuals, ever, have "a story of private action", it's what makes us what we are. Law, rights, government etc. is 'only' (at base concept, while increasingly complex, after) the follow-on, and essential to conserving our private actions.

Atlas Shrugged was the expansion of individual, "private action" to a larger, societal scenario, I'd say simplistically.

(I was only clarifying Brant's "should bes displace ises" which seemed to confuse you)

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There were two threads open with the same title and opening content. (I imagine this was due to a stuck computer or something and a repost to make sure it went up.)

One thread had no posts and this one was getting posts.

Then, someone finally posted on the other even though the main discussion was here, so I merged that post in this thread and deleted the other thread.

It sounds confusing, I know, but imagine if two different conversations among the same people continued on two different threads about the same topic without crossover. Now that would get confusing. It might get fun, but not as a discussion. :) 

Just letting people know what happened and why...

Michael

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13 hours ago, wolfdevoon said:

Please don't try to help on topics you don't know in depth, Bob. Thanks.

I have read Blackstone.  Is that good enough?

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14 hours ago, BaalChatzaf said:

Law as it is practiced,  formed  and used in English speaking countries is derived from English Common Law which is an exercise in practical application and induction.  Common Law is law made up from cases as decided by the judges in the various courts.  It is sound because it was derived from specific disputes and actions  and  corrections to bad practice were made as things went along.  It is the soundest law ever developed.  It is founded on practice and consequences,  not on high fallutin'  abstract principles. 

All attempts to ground ethics and morality on natural  laws  have failed.  There are too many differences in ethical systems  as they evolved.  The basic physical laws of nature do not imply a universally acceptable  system of ethical principles.  Any attempt to derive ethics  and morality will do exactly as you wrote  -- it will get stuck in deductive absolutism.  Abstract logic will not yield a universally accepted system of ethics either.  To put a point on it, there is no a priori system of ethics that will be accepted or practiced by all.   But free falling masses accelerate the same (or very close to the same)  everywhere in the world.  So the laws of falling bodies do follow from basic physical laws but the rules of ethics do not. 

Natural rights came out of common law--I think--and the "high fallutin' abstract principles" gave us "The Declaration of Independence" and the US Constitution with its Bill of Rights. My grandfather's book, The Bill of Rights, It's Origins and Meaning, is full of stories about the English heroes who made that possible, some of whom were executed and most threatened with similar fates.

What is done with abstractions is to see how they work then go back to their roots for reconsideration and then search for improvements in applicable doctrines. Back and forth. We do not properly revert to your primitive thinking.

"Natural laws" is incorrect nomenclature. We refer properly to the natural nature of the cognitive human being called "Man." Man only exists as an abstraction. So does Reality itself, at least insofar as we now understand reality for we can only physicalize it in its particulars. Same too for Man (qua man).

We think so we can choose and have invented rights' doctrines so we are free to act on our choices just as long as we don't in so doing violate someone else's rights, as properly defined.

The way you think is okay for a scientist, up to a point. That point is right and wrong or morality to which you are completely purblind. That goes hand in hand with your cognitive, abstracting disability for which you are incapable of the grace of acknowledgement. I don't have that problem with what you would call, do call, my math and science deficiencies. (More math than science.)

--Brant

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29 minutes ago, BaalChatzaf said:

I have read Blackstone.  Is that good enough?

Nope.

Tell us about Blackstone and how it applies to the discussion apropos what point.

But Wolf's reply to you was inappropriate. This is OL, so post away as best you can.

It's not to change your mind but to more thoroughly dress out sundry arguments and positions. The same for Greg.

That's what I try to do.

--Brant

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14 hours ago, wolfdevoon said:

It took a while for me to grasp what you said, but I think I follow. Surprised that be and is are a problem. Not is and ought?

I've never had any problem with is and ought. Things ought to be because of the way other things are. If someone takes exception he can say my argument ought to be something else for the same reason. Good luck with that.

--Brant

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5 hours ago, Brant Gaede said:

Nope.

Tell us about Blackstone and how it applies to the discussion apropos what point.

But Wolf's reply to you was inappropriate. This is OL, so post away as best you can.

It's not to change your mind but to more thoroughly dress out sundry arguments and positions. The same for Greg.

That's what I try to do.

--Brant

Blackstone is the complete guide (as of the 17 th century) on the structure of case law in Britain.  Blackstone shows what the judges have decided in various cases and why.   Common Law is judge made  case law.  It is about 70 percent of law in the U.S.  The rest is equity and statute law.   Judges are committed to the doctrine of stare decisis,  or observing the precedent unless there is a good reason for going against the precedent. 

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My grandfather referred to Blackstone extensively in his Bill of Rights book.

It will be interesting to see how stare decisis maintains itself in the upcoming battle over Roe v. Wade.

--Brant

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6 hours ago, Brant Gaede said:

My grandfather referred to Blackstone extensively in his Bill of Rights book.

It will be interesting to see how stare decisis maintains itself in the upcoming battle over Roe v. Wade.

--Brant

Fascinating.  What was the title of the book  and what pen name did your grandfather use?

I got interested in the origins of our constitution, largely in English Common Law by reading the books of Akhil Reed Amar who wrote several very readable books on the historic and cultural roots of our Constitution.  Please see

 https://www.amazon.com/Akhil-Reed-Amar/e/B001IYZLQ0/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1492843446&sr=1-1

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6 hours ago, BaalChatzaf said:

Fascinating.  What was the title of the book  and what pen name did your grandfather use?

I got interested in the origins of our constitution, largely in English Common Law by reading the books of Akhil Reed Amar who wrote several very readable books on the historic and cultural roots of our Constitution.  Please see

 https://www.amazon.com/Akhil-Reed-Amar/e/B001IYZLQ0/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1492843446&sr=1-1

The Bill of Rights, It's Origin and Meaning, Irving Brant.

He also wrote a six vol. bio of James Madison, available in a one vol. condensed version. 23 years of research and writing. He'd come home from the Library of Congress with a stack of 3 x 5 cards with his handwritten notes and his wife would type them up on more 3 x 5 cards and then they did the books one by one. Rose Wilder Lane loved them. The scholarship is absolutely impeccable.

In 1960 he took me to the Jefferson Memorial and showed me the inscription around the upper inside of the rotunda. "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility . . . ." He told me he had suggested that quote to his friend the Sec. of the Interior Harold Ickes. That's why it's there.

He was a New Dealer and Roosevelt was his hero. He also knew all the liberals on the Warren Court. He was responsible for Rutledge being appointed after he talked Roosevelt into it. He was also an extremely influential early on conservationist and responsible for the borders of the Olympic National Park after he did survey work there.

Worked until he died at 90 or 91--on two books at once. One was edited to publication by his daughters: Adventures in Conservation With Franklin D. Roosevelt.

--Brant

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1 minute ago, Brant Gaede said:

The Bill of Rights, It's Origin and Meaning, Irving Brant.

He also wrote a six vol. bio of James Madison, available in a one vol. condensed version. 23 years of research and writing. He'd come home from the Library of Congress with a stack of 3 x 5 cards with his handwritten notes and his wife would type them up on more 3 x 5 cards and then they did the books one by one. Rose Wilder Lane loved them. The scholarship is absolutely impeccable.

In 1960 he took me to the Jefferson Memorial and showed me the inscription around the upper inside of the rotunda. "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility . . . ." He told me he had suggested that quote to his friend the Sec. of the Interior Harold Ickes. That's why it's there.

He was a New Dealer and Roosevelt was his hero. He also knew all the liberals on the Warren Court. He was responsible for Rutledge being appointed after he talked Roosevelt into it. He was also an extremely influential early on conservationist and responsible for the borders of the Olympic National Park after he did survey work there.

Worked until he died at 90 or 91--on two books at once. One was edited to publication by his daughters: Adventures in Conservation With Franklin D. Roosevelt.

--Brant

Madison was the leading intellectual behind the Constitution of 1787.  He was one of the authors (Publius) of the Federalist Papers.  He and Alexander Hamilton wrote the most in that publication.  If it can be said X was the Father of the U.S. Constitution  then X  = James Madison.

Your grandad  had an excellent run.  If I live to be his age,  I would not have contributed half as much to the commonweal. 

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4 hours ago, BaalChatzaf said:

Madison was the leading intellectual behind the Constitution of 1787...

You misunderstand what happened.

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21 minutes ago, wolfdevoon said:

You misunderstand what happened.

No I didn't.  I read the Federalist and the history of that addition of the Bill or Rights to the Constitution. 

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