For the Week of February 28, 2005
Karl Marx was one of the great moral philosophers of the 19th century. But his vision was perverted, in the 20th century, and made the center of a system that imprisoned billions of people, one that required decades of war to eradicate.
Ayn Rand, who was born 100 years ago, was one of the great moral philosophers of the 20th century. Her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have become as important as Marx' Das Kapital was to Communists, in defining the ideology of modern Conservativism.
It's just as imprisoning.
This would shock Rand no end. Everything she wrote about, everything she worked for, her entire life was dedicated to preserving and enhancing freedom. Her point was that great men and great ideas should not be limited by the small minds of small men, nor the small turnings of small-d democratic systems. If Gary Cooper wanted to build something that looked suspiciously like the World Trade Center (check the background of The Fountainhead's last scene) we need to get out of his way, not sit around waiting for a consensus to agree on his monumental design.
But what Rand meant for Cooper's Howard Roark wasn't necessarily meant for Roark's children or grandchildren. Marx didn't want a dictatorship of little men, and Rand didn't want one of flighty heiresses, either. But Communism, as a system, happened. And the sad fact is that, today, Paris Hilton has a better chance of becoming President than your son or daughter has, and that's wrong.
Don't get me wrong, and don't write me off as a crank. If I wrapped my political writings into a philosophy and called it "Blankenhornism" I'm sure it would become just as perverted, in time, as Rand's words have become in our time. The dilemma reminds me of a scene in "Monty Python's Life of Brian," where the protagonist is trying to convince people he's not the Messiah but they insist on parroting what he says back at him as though he were.
The philosopher who comes closest to my thinking is Isaiah Berlin. But what I take from Berlin is simply the belief that perfection doesn't exist. It's the same point I take from Jefferson. Few founders expected the U.S. Constitution to last over 200 years.
Why has it survived? It has survived because it has been remade in blood and rewritten many times over our history - one amendment was even explicitly erased by another. I'm convinced that revision is the only reason it's still with us. There have been many dictators throughout our history - small, large, and in-between -- but because they all pledged loyalty to the system, the possibility always existed for the people to outwait them, to outwit them, and to overthrow them. My faith is it will happen again, but blind faith won't make that happen.
The fact is that whenever I see someone quoting Rand at me, it's usually followed by a special pleading. Some person, some institution, some group, some truth wants dispensation to run roughshod over everyone else and their rights. Because they're strong they must deserve it, you see.
And this is the problem with any system based on Rand. It becomes an exercise in toadyism. Cozy up to the strong, because their strength is proof they are right.
What we face today is a concerted attempt to make the present social structure of the American economy permanent. If your grandfather did something great you should continue to profit from it, and your grandchildren should be guaranteed leadership in their society by right of wealth and fame that you created.
This divine right of wealth is as brain-dead as the divine right of kings, the divine right of faith, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is as they were, an attempt to tell history to stop, a call for a "climax state" that will render short-term success permanent.
Ecology tells us what must come from a climax state. When the Okefenokee swamp, in far south Georgia, reaches a climax state http://www.okresa.org/Ecology.htm the swamp disappears, and only the catastrophe of a great fire can bring the groundwater back to the surface. In the West the great redwoods take advantage of this, relying on their girth to survive the catastrophe, and raising the next generation of seeds in the ashes. But this, too, is something of a climax state.
A climax state appears to be stable, but it is in fact just waiting for catastrophe. Stability should not be the end of our striving. Growth should be.
Growth is a continuous, painful process. All parents know this. The shame of my generation is that we have worked so hard to prevent it in our young. We have closeted them behind rules, behind walls, behind faith and behind lies. We thought we were protecting them. We were, in fact, infantalizing them.
Thus it should be no surprise that today's young Americans can't compete with the young of China, or the young of India, or the young of South Africa for that matter. Struggle and failure and the fallibility of your elders are all valuable lessons. Without them, an ecology or a society quickly reaches a climax state, where even a philosophy of the individual becomes merely another set of chains.
In partnership with ZDNet, I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout, a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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