[Editor's Note: With the second installment of this Ayn Rand novel coming to screens, let's take a closer look at the philosophy and mindset of the much-referenced author.]
Ayn Rand and Al Qaeda
Two Voices, One Terrorism
by Evan Knappenberg
Originally published at Counterpunch
As an embarrassed former advocate of “Objectivism” (the hate rhetoric disguised as philosophy by the late Ayn Rand) and as a former US army intelligence analyst, I was struck by an almost unconscious image of the firebrand Russian Capitalist author that has been growing in the back of my mind for quite some time. Let me preface this by saying that the vast majority of people who agree with Ayn Rand on particular issues (e.g. atheism) have problems with her world-view taken as a whole, and those who do take Rand at face value are usually emotionally-susceptible young adults who don’t know the hypocrisy of her views: for example, that Rand relied on Medicare in her later years despite her hatred of public health programs. It bears noting that by and large, Randians are harmless anti-social oddities, until, like Alan Greenspan or Paul Ryan, they are given a public platform from which to hurl righteous moral thunderbolts and play havoc with other peoples’ money. I have yet to meet (face-to-face at least) a “Rand-roid” who seemed capable of any type of physical violence. Rand herself, however, is in another entire category: morally- and legally- dangerous.
In her 1100-page shelf-busting Atlas Shrugged (1957), as well as in her 900-page doorstopper The Fountainhead (1943), Rand commits a series of federal crimes. In Atlas, the protagonist South-American mine-owning billionaire logically and methodically kills striking American workers with sniper fire from a rooftop while Rand praises his 20-20 vision and steady hand. In Rand’s “magnum opus” (which many of her followers have compared to the Bible,) a squad of executive-class terrorists carries out armed attacks with the stated goal of “stopping the engine of the world” and destroying “parasites,” “lice,” “dolts,” and “collectivists.” The terrorist-businessmen have a fleet of marauding pirate ships which they use to seize only humanitarian aid shipments; they laugh while the victims of their infrastructure attacks starve or freeze to death, presumably because “the dolts” didn’t have the good sense to invent something from scratch to sell for millions of dollars. Perhaps most striking is Rand’s depiction of her railroad baroness heroine’s cold-blooded execution of a fresh-faced, young United States soldier after what can only be described as an ideological rant that runs almost a hundred pages. In this scene, Rand makes it clear that the murder is being committed for what amounts to a violent political disagreement, and she praises her character’s calm, remorseless, methodical execution of a uniformed member of the US military. And this is just a sampling of the terrorist acts extolled in Rand’s novels.
In The Fountainhead (1943) , the protagonist, a jilted and sociopathic architect with undiagnosed personality disorder, blows up a public building for a diversity of purely selfish and convoluted aesthetic reasons. Rand’s fondness for terrorism is mostly openly political violence, which amounts to an endorsement of terrorism, which she justifies through a series of emotive attacks on altruism, religion, Cartesian rationalism and Kantian epistemology, among other targets. She is also fond of rape. Reference the scene in Fountainhead in which her “perfectly selfish” architect-hero rapes his debutant heroine counterpart. Sadly, Rand seriously intended this depiction of sexual violence as her ideal male-female partnership; Rand honestly saw this kind of rape as both passionate and loving. For more of these bizarre cases of insane rhetoric, try Rand’s Romantic Manifesto (1969).
Rand’s rhetoric is little more than hate speech targeting environmentalists, union workers, immigrants, the poor, churches, government employees, newspaper publishers, modern artists and 18th-century philosophers. Her vitriol ran the gamut of Christians, socialists, Platonists, anti-abortion protestors, prose poets, NGO workers… the list continues. If any of this type of agonizing fundamentalism is starting to sound familiar, now I would like to direct your attention to another monomaniacal millionaire who fantasized about killing US soldiers. The man I am thinking of had the stated mission of bringing the world to its knees using both terrorist physical violence as well as crippling economic violence. That’s right, Osama Bin Laden.
If comparing Ayn Rand to Osama Bin Laden sounds extreme, you don’t know Ayn Rand sufficiently. Unfortunately, those of us who are aware of her extremism were mostly indoctrinated into it at an early age. Social critic John Rogers said of Atlas Shrugged: “…it is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large parts of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel.” Renowned thinker Raj Patel agrees. If you would rather save yourself from the high blood pressure associated with reading Rand, John W. Robbins does an excellent take-down of Rand’s mis-titled, self-styled philosophy (“objectivism”) in Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of her System (1997). Rand considered herself the arch-nemesis of the centuries-dead Immanuel Kant, presumably after once hearing his 1785 work on ethics referenced in her semester-long academic career in Petrograd University. Robbins barely has to exhale for the charade of “objectivism” to fall apart. Robbins thoroughly exposes Rand’s willful misunderstandings of the metaphysics and epistemology which she was so found of. After reading Robbins, I was left wondering if Rand might not have benefited from some well-timed Cliffsnotes or a copy of Aristotle for Dummies. To witness Rand’s disturbing personality and its effects on her followers, The Ayn Rand Cult by Jeff Walker is highly recommended. Walker details the arbitrary psychological abuse Rand doled out to her young followers on a regular basis, including the decades-long extra-marital affair she had with a man half her age, who was “excommunicated” when he finally left her. Walker does a good job of explaining the intense hatred between various sects of “objectivism” after Rand’s death, which are still at each others’ throats a generation removed.
As to the damage done by Rand’s followers, I wont even touch Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, who was banned from the UK for hate speech. I could also point to Alan Greenspan who, after the economy collapsed in 2008, publicly admitted to doubts about the “rational free-market” idea which he took from Rand. I could also point to vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who is admittedly not a good Randian because of his professed Christian faith, but still cites Rand as his inspiration to cut veterans’ benefits, the medicare programs that Rand relied upon, and almost every last thread of the social safety net. Perhaps I could also offer myself as an example of Rand’s mischief: my life has been a spotty process of embarrassing violence and rehabilitation in the aftermath of reading Rand. I personally blame Rand for my temper, which I learned to justify from an early age with the outrageous rhetoric of a “John Galt” terrorist or “Howard Roark” rapist. But it is only after my involvement in anti-terrorist operations as an intelligence analyst in the Middle East that I dare to venture the (tasteless?) comparison of Rand to Bin Laden.
Behind the provocative light in which I am portraying Ayn Rand, there is another more troubling and critical issue at stake in this comparison. By evoking it, I hope to eviscerate the Obama administration and the federal court system, as well as the moral stench that is the Patriot Act. Knowing the danger of openly mocking both Rand and the xenophobic “we-got-‘im” armchair patriots, I would hope to turn the attention of both camps to the hypocrisy of the Global War on Terror, and how even someone as patriotic as Ayn Rand easily fits into the category of terrorist. My hope is that the libertarian fringe will at least try the shoe on to see if it fits, and then to consider some truly moral alternatives to their beliefs. First, I call into evidence the recent case of Tarek Mahenna.
Unlike Rand, Tarek Mahenna was born in the US, a natural American citizen. As a follower of Islam, Mahenna was upset about the treatment of civilians in lands occupied by US troops. In April 2012, Mahenna was convicted of the new and ambiguous federal felony called “material support of terrorism.” Mahenna’s sole offense was that he admittedly watched and re-posted al Qaeda internet videos on his personal computer. Mahenna’s conviction was upheld on the basis of his motivation for watching violent videos: according to federal prosecutors, Mahenna was watching said videos in order to radicalize himself to support terrorism. This talking-yourself-into-something it turns out, is a federal crime that is punishable by 20 years in federal Supermax. It also begs the question: aren’t the libertarian “terrorists-in-intentive-pre-radicalization” doing the same thing with the writings of Ayn Rand that Mahenna did with the al Qaeda propaganda? The offenses depicted in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are at least as odious as anything Osama Bin Laden ever said in his infamous tapes, or for that matter anything that Agent Jack Bauer is depicted doing in the television show 24. Ayn Rand explicitly considered herself an intellectual propagandist, even going so far as saying in public that she was “aiming for” young, left-leaning intelligent types, presumably to radicalize, much the same as Mahenna allegedly was.
The real-life Orwellian twist to the story is the fact that at no point was Tarek Mahenna ever criminally violent in his direct actions or speech, even though, according to the Christian Science Monitor, he was repeatedly provoked by undercover FBI agents who failed at eliciting even verbal agreement for violence. This is more than some of Rand’s followers, myself included, can say.
This trend of faux-terror is becoming disturbingly common in not just large Muslim enclaves, but in modest communities of color and dissent. This, and the blurring of lines in cases like Mahenna’s, raises some serious questions: what is terrorism, essentially? What is radicalization, and where is there culpability? What is hate speech? What is violence? Who decides what is an acceptable depiction of violence in any context?
It is obvious from even a basic philosophical standpoint that the current spoken and legislated conceptualization of Terrorism as such is supplemented by a non-verbal, unwritten and ideological legal code that adjudicates not on the basis of criminal action or even intention. Instead the unspoken paradigm that determines who is patriotic and who is a dirty terrorist is ideological. How else can you explain the imprisonment of someone like Tarek Mahenna and the simultaneous freedom of the Yaron Brook, a fundamentalist Randian leader who has, undoubtedly read and promoted the emotive, political violence –the terrorism– that make up a large part of the writings of Ayn Rand? Certainly Christians and democratic socialists must cringe everywhere whenever the term “radical” is thrown around. But the question stands: why isn’t the FBI infiltrating the Ayn Rand Institute with agents trained in the art of provocation? Why isn’t anyone concerned with the explicit calls to political terrorism in Rand’s writing? Why is representative Bachmann focused on the imagined terrorist sympathies of Huma Abedin and not those of Leonard Peikoff? The answer is simple: ideology.
At its best, Rand’s ideology is merely raunchy and outdated. At its worst, we could cite the policies of Greenspan which brought us economic disaster, or the political career of someone like Paul Ryan. There is, to my knowledge, at least one internet-based group trying to build a Rand-inspired armed separatist group in this country. So is Rand’s ideological embrace of violence any better in than the ideology of the self-aggrandizing Saudi millionaire whose obscure rantings culminated in bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, New York and Washington? Is Rand’s ideology any more or less rational, and by what standard? As we move forward toward a post-9/11 pluralist democracy, what place do either Rand or Bin Laden have in our public discourse? This is a serious question that requires a serious answer, and not in the form of a work of fiction.
Evan Knappenberger is an Iraq war veteran, former teenaged “objectivist,” and philosophy and theology student at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.