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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

'Objectivism" .NE. Objectivity

I just sent this letter to the editor of Phactum, the newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking. The latest issue featured a picture of Ayn Rand on the cover and a quote used as filler on one of the interior pages.

While the paragraphs about naval vessels that have adorned recent Phacta lack pertinence to the group's aims, they're innocuous enough. The same cannot be said for the latest issue's apparent endorsement of Ayn Rand.

Rand exemplified that peculiar species, still extant, that uses "reason" and "objectivity" (or, in this case, "Objectivism") as code words not for critical thinking but, rather, another brand of dogma.

I learned some interesting things about her several years ago when my book group met with Matt Ruff, who used her as a character in his science fiction novel Sewer, Gas & Electric. For one, she refused ever to debate those holding an opposing view. For another, her coterie constituted a cult of personality that actually practiced Maoist-style "criticism and self-criticism."

These facts reinforced the impression I'd previously formed from my own reading of her. In some essays she offers the most ridiculous caricature of "primitive" communist societies -- a portrayal devoid of any actual ethnographic knowledge but faithfully reflecting her ideological prejudice that private property is the prerequisite to "civilization."

Another telling moment was an internal monologue in her novel Atlas Shrugged, describing wilderness as "without cause or purpose." Now there's an odd conflation. Wilderness generally is without purpose, but that hardly means it's without cause. Things in the wild are just as much "caused," i.e., deterministic, as are things in the human world.

The flip side of this confusion is expressed elsewhere in the same passage, where the protagonist reflects on her preference for "the clean, rational world of the [train] tunnels." Taken together, these phrases betray a visceral revulsion toward wilderness, and a rejection of anything not immediately reducible to conscious human purpose as "irrational."

If you know something about her personal history, you can guess this all stems from her family's dispossession by the Bolsheviks when she was a child, which appears to have given her an obsession with order and "legality" at any cost. She defined "freedom" not in terms of democracy at all, but as the untrammeled supremacy of private property -- while conveniently ignoring the role of force in that institution's creation.

I understand that many skeptics are very individualistic and may find Rand's individualism, as well as her atheism, appealing. But an exemplar of critical thinking, she was not.

Eric Hamell

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