Sunday, July 14, 2013

What's black and white and read all over?

In spite of the binary world that Ayn Rand created in Atlas Shrugged - or very likely because of it - the book continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

To many people, especially intellectuals, describing a novel or a philosophy or a personal view of the world as black and white is not a compliment. It's meant to indicate an egregious over-simplification, but Heller's biography notes:
Rand loved the fact that (Mickey) Spillane's potboiling plots and gun-toting heroes were dedicated to separating good from evil in a black-and-white world. ("Grays don't interest me." she said apropos of his work.)
And black and white thinking, we are told from no less an authority than Temple Grandin, is extremely common in those with autism-spectrum disorders:
People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome tend towards black and white thinking.  They see themselves and the world around them in polar opposites, and this tendency feeds their need to be perfect. Even the tiniest mistakes and mishaps can feel like monumental failures to them, creating high levels of anxiety when their efforts or the events around them do not measure up to this all-or-nothing scale.
And a contributor to the discussion board for people with autism/Asperger's, in a discussion specifically about black and white thinking, wrote:
In my youth I embraced Ayn Rand's writings; she clarified morality and inspired me. (Many philosophies do that; some are bad, like cults, propaganda and Republicans.) But I realized that life is seldom clear...
But many people who haven't been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder won't, or maybe even cannot, think in shades of gray. That's why religion is so popular - the God/Devil dichotomy is so easy to understand. You're either blessed or you're cursed. And Rand's philosophy is an exact copy of this structure - you're either one of the Supermen, blessed with beauty, brains and a superior morality, or you are the exact opposite - in every way.

One thing I found disturbing about the Heller biography was her defense of Rand's work. Heller writes:
The reviews (of Atlas Shrugged)... were hateful and dishonest... (The New York Times) branded the novel as "a demonstrative act rather than a literary novel"... "as loudly as Miss Rand proclaims her love of life, it seems clear the book is written out of hate." (Hicks) suggested that it was nothing more than clumsy mixture of melodrama and didacticism."
I happen to find Hicks' opinion right on the money, but then, I realize it's opinion. And the only way it could be characterized as "dishonest" is if it isn't Hicks' true opinion. And nowhere else in any of the reviews that she quotes does Heller demonstrate that a reviewer was being dishonest. Heller appears to equate dishonesty with strong opinions that Heller disagrees with.

And if the reviews were "hateful" - and they were strongly negative from all points on the political spectrum - maybe it's because Rand's black and white worldview required her to deal harshly with those characters on the bad side of the equation, sending them to their deaths while detailing their thought-crimes. She continually dehumanizes all who oppose her "philosophy" and rants against the altruistic and the poor.

How could any sane person not perceive that as hateful?

Maybe it's the false equivalency that so many journalists love, that prompts Heller to try to find something positive to say about Rand, because Rand's personal life provides very little that is praise-worthy. But I have to wonder how carefully Heller read "Atlas Shrugged" because she says:
But Rand's certainty that she alone understood the truth and that people who lived by other convictions, especially liberals, religious adherents, and public intellectuals, were mystics of spirit, savages, looting thugs, beggars, parasites, gibberers, carrion eaters, cavemen, and headhunters did have the ring of Big Sister, even if the ideological content of the novel did not.
How could Heller not be aware of the fact that calling people who lived by other convictions nasty names is the very essence of the ideological content of "Atlas Shrugged?" If you took a drink every time someone is called a parasite or a moocher or a looter, you'd be drunk at the end of a single chapter.

And of course the bad guys have to be non-human in order to highlight her heroes' Super-humanness. Because that's how binary thinking works.

I realize it's impossible to prove Rand was on the autism spectrum, and in fact apparently it's all the rage now to claim somebody is "on the spectrum":
 Schnarch recalls a man who phoned him the day before a scheduled initial couples session and announced that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. “As soon as this happened,” Schnarch says, “I knew I had difficulty.” He contacted the referring therapist, who said he’d suspected the man had Asperger’s because he said things to his girlfriend that were so cruel he couldn’t possibly understand their impact. As far as Schnarch was concerned, it was an all-too-familiar instance of ­sadism masquerading as disability. “If you’re going to perp, the best place to perp from is the victim position.”
And I do have to wonder about this last paragraph of the Heller biography, where Heller reveals Rand saying something so incredibly contrary to Objectivist principles I could hardly believe it. Heller herself doesn't seem to be aware of it, and instead wants to move on to give Rand credit for individual rights and freedom, etc. But the last paragraph begins:
"It is not I who will die, it is the world that will end," she liked to say. Of course the world went on. But her extraordinary achievement...
OK, stop right there.

Putting aside the debatable nature of her achievement, this quote is the most succinct refutation of one of the tenets of Objectivism I've ever read. As the Ayn Rand institute explains, the metaphysics of Objectivism is:
"Reality, the external world, exists independent of man's consciousness, independent of any observer's knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires or fears. This means that A is A, that facts are facts, that things are what they are...
But Rand's saying the world will end when she dies demonstrates the subjective nature of reality. The world does go on - but not as far as the one who is dying. In their reality the world is ending.

I haven't yet found out what Ayn Rand thought of Schopenhauer, although she can't have thought very highly of him since he did not believe in free will. I also find it strange that she hated both Kant and Hegel, when Schopenhauer revered Kant (not without critique) and despised Hegel. And Schopenhauer tended to favor Plato over Aristotle which would have been completely unacceptable to Rand.

In any case, Schopenhauer felt that subjective vs. objective was a false dichotomy, as he discusses in a brief dialog in The World as Will and Representation which I turned into an Xtranormal animation a couple of years ago: