Friday, 26 October 2012

Myth-Peddler in Focus: The Huffington Post

If there is a global leader in saying false things about Ayn Rand, it is most likely The Huffington Post. The liberal news website hosts numerous political bloggers, and hit pieces on Ayn Rand are one of their favorite subjects, typically in order to put Republicans known to like her work in a bad light. Ayn Rand wasn't a conservative and had less in common with Paul Ryan than many think, but there is far, far more to the falsehoods than that. I'm going to take a sample of Huffington Post articles from the last month or two to serve as an example, and see how they hold up against the truth.

Ryan's 'Secret' Tape Is Even More Extreme Than Romney's by Richard (RJ) Eskow (9/24)

In a post mostly about Paul Ryan, a blogger by the name of Richard Eskow took grasping at straws to a whole new level when he took an Ayn Rand protagonist as advocating what he is criticizing others for advocating.
Here's what Rand-as-d'Anconia says about any wealthy person with a conscience: "Swarms of looters that stay under rocks for centuries come crawling out at the first smell of a man who begs to be forgiven for the guilt of owning wealth. They will hasten to relieve him of the guilt -- and of his life, as he deserves." (Rand's writings frequently exult in the deaths of anyone she considers inferior.)
This might be called taking words out of context, but the most essential context that Eskow is ignoring is in the passage he quotes. The character is referring to what the man deserves according to the moral standard shared by him and the looters, which d'Anconia is criticizing. Obviously d'Anconia opposes "the guilt of owning wealth" and the "looters," so why would he agree with their murdering him for it? d'Anconia is not referring to the punishment he wishes to inflict on those who accept such guilt, but warning them against accepting that guilt by referring to its logical outcome.

Eskow's reference to "any wealthy person with a conscience" has severely problematic implications as well. Does Eskow believe any man who doesn't "beg to be forgiven for the guilt of owning wealth" has no conscience? If not, is he implying what Ayn Rand advocated was eschewing moral standards all together? Because, to the contrary, Ayn Rand believed following a standard of morality is essential. She merely advocated a different one.

There is more being evaded here that I won't elaborate on, such as the somewhat metaphorical nature of the passage (e.g. "stay under rocks for centuries"), and reading the scene itself will show still more is missing. I'm not sure what other instances Eskow has in mind when he says Rand's writings "frequently exult in the deaths of anyone she considers inferior," but given his interpretation of the above, I think you can agree it's safe not to take his word for it.

Eskow later uses more generic falsehoods when he repeats the meme that Ayn Rand believed the non-wealthy were inferior, claiming "Randian extremism speaks through Romney, too, as when he says of the now-famous and mythical "47 percent," "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."" As regulars of this blog know, Rand was actually never hostile to the less wealthy.

Paul Ryan Obsession With Ayn Rand 'Disturbing,' Says House Challenger Rob Zerban by Jennifer Bendery (9/24)

Another Huffington blog post, also from last month, repeats the Medicare hypocrisy meme.
Particularly strange, according to Zerban, is that, for all of Rand's ideas advocating limited government and celebrating the individual over the collective, the reality is that the novelist-philosopher depended on the same government programs that she railed against -- and that Ryan wants to fundamentally overhaul. 
Rand was "a person who ended up needing the social nets at the end of her life," Zerban said of Rand, who died in 1982. "She was a Social Security recipient and a Medicare recipient."
This accusation, as ARA had addressed before, assumes that Ayn Rand ever advocated not using existing government programs (she advocated using them), and that she somehow could have "opted out" of Social Security and Medicare and all of the negative consequences their existence have, including but not limited to having to pay into them. The way it's phrased here additionally seems to imply that Social Security and Medicare were special targets of hers; he writes that she "railed against" them as though they weren't mere examples of the government interference with individual rights that she "railed against" in general.

Atlas Exploited: The Clever Hoax of Ayn Rand by Sanjay Sanghoee (10/12)

Another, more recent, article is probably Huffington's most severe case of unbridled, accuracy-impaired vitriol yet. The only one of the three that has more about Rand than Ryan, it opens by declaring Ayn Rand's popularity is proof America isn't a "civilized country" and that Ayn Rand's ideas should be addressed not on their merits but based on his speculation that she was mentally ill.
[Atlas Shrugged's] real relevance stems not from the objectivist [sic] philosophy it expounds but from the undue credit that we give to Rand herself for believing what she did. What some people refuse to recognize is that Ayn Rand, while being a brilliant writer, was not some exceptional visionary but a deeply insecure person who latched onto a form of financial fanaticism in order to define an identity for herself.
The article later concludes that Ayn Rand's philosophy "is little more than a sly attempt to whitewash her own flaws," such as her "ruthless selfishness." No concrete examples of these flaws are ever given. Perhaps the reason Sanghoee wants you to judge a writer that hasn't been alive for more than three decades by his wild speculation about her (then) psychology and character is that he knows so little about her actual ideas.
Her definition of morality, which she stated clearly in a seminal interview with Mike Wallace in 1959, is simply to do whatever it takes to achieve your own personal happiness, regardless of the consequences of your actions upon your family, friends, colleagues, nation or the world.
Here's the Wallace interview if you want to watch it for yourself. The moral system Ayn Rand advocated does hold one's own happiness as the moral purpose of one's life. But it does not hold to "simply" do "whatever it takes," as though there's no predicting what sort of thing it might take on any given day. Nor does it hold to pursue your happiness without regard for the rights of others or the well-being of those close to you, because according to Ayn Rand's system of values, achieving happiness doesn't conflict with those. Is Sanghoee saying that he would be happier if he could inflict negative consequences on his family, friends, colleagues, nation and the world, but represses the desire to do so out of a sense of self-sacrificial duty? And that he assumes others feel the same way?

Regardless, Ayn Rand didn't promote the whim-worshipping, caustic behaviour Sanghoee describes. He should read the aforementioned ARA post where we explained that, to the contrary, Ayn Rand upheld a moral system that describes a specific code of values necessary for achieving happiness, and sacrificing others was not only absent from it, but specifically counter to it. But Sanghoee doubles down.
By this skewed logic, even Bernie Madoff is a moral man since robbing people blind to build his own fortune made him happy (as long as it lasted), not to mention almost every narcissistic and exploitative figure in history from Henry VIII to Adolf Hitler. 
No, because according to Ayn Rand, it most likely didn't make him happy. And even if it did, he should have known it wouldn't have worked out for him in the long run. It is interesting that Sanghoee stipulates "as long as it lasted," because a prominent theme of Ayn Rand's writing on morality is achieving happiness in the long term instead of doing whatever will give you short term gratification. "If it makes you happy, it's good" is the philosophy of hedonism, which Rand rejected. That's why the Objectivist morality includes virtues such as honestyintegrity, and justice, which Madoff - let alone Henry VII and Hitler - obviously didn't employ. Additionally, Rand's political philosophy holds the initiation of force and fraud as the primary social evil. But somehow a fraudster and two brutal, force-wielding tyrants are his examples of what Objectivism tolerates.
On the issue of charity, Rand maintained that it only made sense if it made you happy. In other words, in her bleak world, even charity is nothing more than a way to make yourself feel good, much like eating a good meal or going shopping.
It is true, like this implies, that Ayn Rand didn't consider charity morally significant. But why does he say "even" charity as though Ayn Rand had no alternative idea of moral significance? And what's "bleak" about wanting to feel good? Further, there's nothing to say particular instances of charity can't be strong examples of Objectivist moral principles, depending on the purpose and context. It is merely that the act of charity as such is not especially significant to Objectivist morality.

It's strange, and unnerving, that we live in a world where the third most trafficked of all news websites features articles composed entirely of lies and vitriol, that contain arguments like "Ayn Rand's morality includes pursuing your own happiness, and Hitler wanted to be happy, therefore Ayn Rand morality upholds being like Hitler." I wonder if those degrading our public discourse in this way are considering the consequences of their actions upon their "family, friends, colleagues, nation or the world."