Sunday, May 1, 2011

On False Prophets

Thanks to a commenter on one of Roy Edroso's posts at alicublog, I read this op-ed piece from the Christian Science Monitor by one Onkar Ghate, "a Senior Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif." Leaving aside the amusing matter that Objectivists now have names like the villains in Rand's novels (shouldn't Ghate follow in his Mistress' footsteps and change his name to something more, well, Aryan?), I have to wonder what kind of productive work a Senior Fellow does at a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Moochers! Looters! Parasites! (Of course, Rand seems not to have done a day of productive labor in her life either.)

The piece is a sermon, based on the idea of Rand as some kind of prophet, a religious concept that will fit oddly with Rand's atheism if you don't recognize her as a religious teacher, not a philosopher, and Objectivism as a religion.
... especially among tea partiers, Ayn Rand is being hailed a prophet. How could she have anticipated, more than 50 years ago, a United States spinning out of financial control, plagued by soaring spending and crippling regulations? How could she have painted villains who seem ripped from today’s headlines?
Like most prophets, Rand was writing about her own time, not ours. Atlas Shrugged was originally published in 1957, and many Americans (including the immigrant Rand, who came to the US from the Soviet Union in 1926) could still remember the Great Depression. There'd been another serious contraction of the economy right after World War II, and another in the late 1950s. There was cacophonous disagreement about the cause of these crises and what ought to be done about them, as there still is. Economics is so complex that it's easy to claim that your opponent's analysis overlooks vital factors; but then so, almost certainly, does yours. It's possible for one stratum of the economy to be underregulated, for example, while others are overregulated. But Rand's analysis isn't economic anyway, it's psychological.

Anyway, like any religious commentator, but especially like an end-times preacher finding fulfillments of Prophecy in Today's News, Onkar Ghate strains to find parallels between Scripture and our present condition. First, between characters in Rand's opus and the politicians of today:
There’s Mr. Thompson, who like President Obama seeks to rally the country behind pious platitudes. There’s Orren Boyle, who like President Bush says that we must abandon free-market principles to save the free market.
How Should We Then Live? What Must We Do To Be Saved?
Rand was asked these very questions in her own lifetime. Her answers might surprise you. In the 1970s, America was in a deep financial crisis (a new word, stagflation, had to be coined), urban violence was rampant, and power-seeking politicians like President Nixon instituted wage and price controls that led to, among other things, gas stations with no gas. How, people wondered, could Rand have foreseen all this? Was she a prophet? No, she answered. She had simply identified the basic cause of why the country was veering from crisis to new crisis.
And the basic cause wasn't even really economic; it was spiritual.
“You have cried that man’s sins are destroying the world and you have cursed human nature for its unwillingness to practice the virtues you demanded,” novel hero John Galt declares to a country in crisis. “Since virtue, to you, consists of sacrifice, you have demanded more sacrifices at every successive disaster.”
Um, no. It wasn't "sacrifice" that produced the economic crisis of 2008, but the progressively deregulated financial markets and the housing bubble, which far from being cases of the free market in action required nurture by government agencies. (Money itself, the dollar whose sign Rand wore like a scapular, is an artifact of government in modern economies. This is one reason I consider Rand a mystic: she thought money is real, instead of a symbol of real value.) "Sacrifice" -- in the name of "economic freedom" -- is now being demanded of the mass of Americans by the already rich and their government and cultural agents from the President and Congress to the corporate media, down to my minister friend: lower wages, no benefits, no unemployment insurance, no pensions, no Social Security, no Medicare, no public schools, no disaster relief that doesn't go right into the bank accounts of big corporations, and so on. The rich and powerful don't propose to sacrifice anything; they want everything for themselves.

A few weeks ago there was a flurry of excitement on the Internet over the discovery that Rand herself drew Social Security and Medicare benefits when she was old and sick. Her disciples hastened to show that she had laid the ideological groundwork for this when she was younger: it was acceptable, she'd argued, for the Rational Man to take advantage of these benefits, since they were funded by the money that had been 'stolen' from him in the form of taxes. This is true enough, but non-Randites could easily agree: our Social Security benefits are ours, the product of our money, so why shouldn't we receive them? The same turned out to be true of the state employee pensions under attack by the Teabaggers: they were not paid for by the taxpayers, but had been skimmed off the wages paid to the employees. Indeed, a rational person would notice that Social Security, Medicare, and other government-run services are extremely popular, and politicians try to undermine them at their peril. How, then, are they illegitimate on democratic grounds? We commission our government to supply these services; we pay for them; why shouldn't we receive them?

Onkar Ghate continues his exposition of the Gospel According to Galt:
He elaborates: “You have sacrificed justice to mercy.” (For example, calls to make homeownership “accessible” to those who could not afford it and then bailouts and foreclosure freezes to spare them when they couldn’t pay.)
Well, no. Hucksters love to tell you that they're doing this for your benefit, not theirs; but the housing bubble was for the benefit of the banking industry, not the people they gulled. There was no "mercy" involved at any level, and there are other effective, non-destructive ways to make home ownership accessible to those who couldn't otherwise afford it, like the government loans of the postwar period. The "bailouts" Ghate refers to were for the benefit of the bankers: defaults are an inevitable risk in lending, but the bankers had preferred high-risk loans without risk to themselves. As for foreclosure freezes, plenty of evidence has surfaced of dishonest foreclosures, even of people who had paid off their mortgages. It's no more illegitimate of the government to intervene in such cases than in any other kind of theft.
“You have sacrificed reason to faith.” (For example, attempts to prevent stem cell research on Biblical grounds or blind faith that Mr. Obama’s deliberately empty rhetoric about hope and change will magically produce prosperity.)
That stem cell research was going to be done at government expense -- why isn't it looting to expect people who don't like it to pay for it with their taxation? As for Obama's deliberately empty rhetoric, it's also an an example of faith to believe that lowering taxes will magically produce prosperity in the face of so much counterevidence. Or that you can be "rational" simply by proclaiming yourself to be so, as Rand did, and her followers continue to do.
“You have sacrificed self-esteem to self-denial.” (For example, attacks on Bill Gates for making a fortune; applause when he gives that fortune away.)
Bill Gates isn't giving his fortune away; he will still be rich, in no danger of sleeping under bridges or selling his aged mother's body on the streets to buy groceries. There have been ethical criticisms of the way he advanced his fortune, and doubts raised about the value of his philanthropy. In education, for example, he sees his donations as entitling him to push programs that don't work, thus sacrificing students and their futures in the service of his own self-esteem as a generous man.

But this is the most incoherent part of Ghate's sermon. I can't see the connection between Gates's making a fortune and the self-esteem / self-denial figure, and isn't it "sacrifice" if he gives away his fortune without making a profit on it? That's a cardinal sin in Rand's moral lexicon. I've been surprised to find that "self-esteem" is a major good for Rand and her followers, since the Right today generally hates the word and sees it as a feel-good excuse for losers. (And not only the Right.)

I've seen a lot online by or about people who claim that they saw Atlas Shrugged as "today's news." It doesn't look like it, not when someone associated with Rand's think tank so clearly knows nothing about the real world, and has to distort history, current events, and his own Scripture to make it seem relevant.