Monday, January 11, 2010
Rand and what she's made
I post this video, in particular, for only the first 5 seconds or so. I could have chosen many others; the point is that the vlogger in question has a low opinion of those with whom he disagrees.
It wasn't always that way. Brandon Cropper and I were in college together, years back, in a class or two. It would be an outright lie to say we were friends, and I personally would be very surprised if he remembered me at all. It was pure accident when, last year, I stumbled on his Youtube videos, and had a brief moment of realization that this was the same person who I had shared a class on Existentialism with.
You can imagine how that went, if you watch his large output of videos, on both his current channel and his previous one. Mr. Cropper (his handle of choice) is a vocal, passionate and committed devotee of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist and Ethical Egoist philosophies. He is an ardent foe of what we clumsily refer to as the postmodern, and holds that those who traffic in it and its tropes are worse than wrong, but deceitful, corrupt, vile. So you could expect that a class in French existentialism-- taught by a committed existentialist and populated by undergrads who either accepted the kind of folk relativism popular in all college environs or were too disaffected to challenge the professor-- would not be one that he was likely to enjoy. (That class, incidentally, was taught by Eleanor Godway, a passionate and brilliant teacher; it was among my most important formative intellectual experiences.)
Yet despite the distance between the subject matter and his eventual ideology, I remember Brandon as an engaged and engaging student. He would frequently-- almost always, really-- push back against the reading or against the class's interpretation of it, but never in an aggressive or aggrieved way that threatened the emotional integrity of the class. Even though I was the other most vocal student in the class, and I was the one spouting the constructivist arguments I did (and do) hold to be of use, he was never anything but warm to me-- even if, at times, his frustration towards the professor, the class, and me were all evident. I don't know how much of an intellectual evolution he has undergone, on the level of ideas, since then-- he mentioned Rand frequently then, and was clearly taken with her work.
What is clear, though, is that a frankly incredibly hardening has happened with him since then. He has developed a certitude, and a rejection of any contrary opinion, and a pitched, proud disrespect for anyone who doesn't agree with the entire suite of his intellectual project. In this, he is perfectly typical of the other Objectivists that I have read or interacted with. He is, as far as I understand, quite a popular vlogger among the Objectivist set. The willingness to listen, the curiosity, the belief in the friendship inherent in the exchange of ideas, all seem gone. In their place stand a crude, angry and embittered certitude. Whatever questions he had then he has long since answered now.
And it's this, ultimately, that makes Rand so corrosive, so deadening to the heart of the intellectual project. People far abler than I have prosecuted the case against Rand, and I don't intend to rehash it here. But this tendency of her writings and her philosophy to compel people to slap concrete on the foundation of their own ideas, to build a moat around their intellectual life, to categorize the whole world into the tiny fraction who are worthy and the great horrid mass that are simply not to be listened to in any circumstance... this is the greatest failing of the woman and her teachings. There are a worse things to inspire people towards-- genocide, war, ethnic cleansing-- but still, a philosopher whose greatest contribution is a vast incuriosity is a dismal thing.
And, you know, if you peruse Mr. Cropper's videos for awhile you'll learn that he thinks poor people choose to be in poverty and deserve it, that we should not feed the starving, that the American Indians were a collection of idiots who were rightly colonized by a superior power, that war is often preferable to peace, that religion is a mental disease, that modern cosmology and particle theory are a scientific conspiracy, that we won the Vietnam war, that we are and should be at war with Islam (because Muslims are inherently irrational and hateful), that nuclear armed nations should enforce their advantage in the capacity for physical violence against other nations without conscience, that global warming is a myth, that child labor should be reinstated as it is a moral and rational edifice, that poetry always must rhyme or is not poetry, and his most cherished and frequently expressed idea, that the edifice of modern higher education is in total a conspiracy against the people, perpetrated by educators who knowingly disseminate nonsense, and that this is the reason for his failure to ascend to the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Some of these can be directly attributed to Rand's philosophy; many can't. But the framework that creates them can indeed be blamed on a corpus that tells people, again and again and again, that the more they are disagreed with, the more it proves their genius; that it is a mark of honor to generate contrary opinion but not to listen to it; that nothing is at last as valuable as an idea that is an affront to the lice, the vermin, the trash.
A friend of mine recently let me know that she was reading Ayn Rand, and was mesmerized by it; and how to respond? To say that the sum of my beliefs stand in opposition to Rand's would be a shocking understatement. To say that I disagree with her would be to fail to express my moral revulsion in the face of her vulgar and ugly project, my horror in the knowledge that such adamant support for ruthlessness, callousness and contempt are not only possible but popular. Yet to tell this friend that she shouldn't read Ayn Rand would be to fail in exactly the way I have identified. No banned books, no forbidden ideas. Even to caution her against what she found there, to deride Rand or her books, before she had read them, would be to break the compact that says that books are to be read first and contradicted second. So what could I do, but to urge that she keep an open mind, and to hope that she enjoyed herself?
There are many things I would like to say to Brandon: to confront him with the oddity of his own frequently unstable economic situation, if his beliefs on virtue and wealth are what they are; to say that there perhaps isn't so much difference between his solicitations for donations for the school he wishes to start and those for charitable causes; to point out that a parents' wealth is the most consistently correlative factor in a child's eventual wealth; to ask how a philosophy that is supposed to be based on Aristotle's logic can contain such rampant argument through assertion; to ask whether there might not be some truth to the inherent destabilization of language; to wonder whether perhaps some aspects of science describe natural phenomena simply too complicated to be dissolved down to broad understandings of "rationality"; to say that rights are meaningless without responsibility; to wonder what to do with the human heart and its yearnings for compassion. But in the face of all this, I'm afraid I would likely be greeted with derision and a closed mind. I don't have to suppose that; he's said it, again and again.
In this conversation, of course, we are disadvantaged. Even after my friend has read and absorbed those works, if she were to take them and run with them as some have-- as Mr. Cropper has-- I couldn't claim certainty, or the mantel of the righteous or rational, in my arguments against those ideas. I couldn't make an appeal to some real and timeless truth. The books themselves, meanwhile, and their many acolytes, insist again and again on this certitude. Against a defiant and explicit "objectivity" we can respond only with the contingent. With the contingent, and with kindness. I have felt a certain affection for Brandon, as I have picked through his videos, even while he is saying things that are frankly repugnant to me. And I would be lying if I didn't say that there are times when he says things that are really perceptive and bright. He's an intelligent guy, with a dedication to his intellectual project I admire. I can't dismiss him, or any other followers of Rand, or risk losing all of them in the way so many of them have lost so many others.
There's a lesson, in all of this, I think, about charity, and about grace. I have frequently failed to involve either in my many debates. I think it is my duty to extend such things to Mr. Cropper, even as he would reject such things from me-- and in the proper way to honor someone else's beliefs when they include not wanting you to honor them, there is another dilemma. The marketplace of ideas is a cold and disorienting world, and I am frequently reminded of how even those who we consider friends and bear affection for can often appear grim and aggressive. The decision to continue to extend the spirit of friendship, and of fraternity, in the face of such divisions is the ultimate refutation of Rand and what she stands for.