This first appeared on Instead of a Blog, on September 29, 2002, at this address:
Some of My Best Friends
This, of course, is not true. No true Objectivist could tolerate me as a friend.
But some of my best friends do admire (or at least have admired) Objectivism’s True Prophet, Ayn Rand. So, when I express extremely negative judgments of Rand, her philosophy, and the bulk of her followers — as I did recently on Instead of a Blog — I usually try to be very careful, and not paint with too wide a brush.
But I don’t always succeed. It is easy to get sucked into the kind of lumping rhetoric to which Rand herself was prone, simply in self-defense. That’s one of the hardest thing about any fight: even if you beat your enemy a thousand ways till Sunday, you may have so twisted your behavior for the cause that you’ve lost by becoming like those whom you oppose.
And I readily admit that I often get so caught up in my rejection of Randian cultism and error that I forget how terrible it must be for a respectable admirer of Rand to have to deal with the worst elements of Randianism. I mean, it is vexing for me, but I have the luxury of rejecting almost all that’s original in her philosophy! What if I actually agreed with her peculiar take on individualism? What would I do with those of her followers who embarrass themselves with Rand-worship and cultic knee-jerks?
Apparently, Roderick T. Long is one of these people. He admires Rand, and agrees with a lot more of her ideas than do I. But this doesn’t make him a cultist any more than it makes my friends cultists. As he writes in
Philately: Who Needs It, an entry in his new,well-titled blog, he has
often found it baffling that so many of those who are attracted to her message of reason, independence, and heroic individualism turn out to exhibit such a timid and cultic conformity when it comes to thinking outside the strictures that Rand herself laid down.
Thankfully, he gives a good explanation for the continued appeal of cultic behavior among Randian individualists: these cultists are weak individuals, merely tempted by individualism; they are not individualists in bone and marrow. Authentic self-reliance being beyond them, they compensate by treating Rand as an Authority.
This strikes me as almost certainly the case with many Rand cultists, though surely not all. It describes one relevant factor in the flourishing of the cult. But it is not the only aspect. (Before considering my caveats, below, responsible readers will first read Long’s delightful essay.)
The Holy Grail of Certainty
The weak, benighted Randian cultist, according to Long, depends on Rand’s validation for his sense of independence and individualist virtue. This results in exempting Rand’s own personality and ideas from questioning.
But there are other reasons why someone would take an ideology extolling The Individual and turn it into a cult.
Remember, cults encourage and nurture a sense of certainty. Reasonable people, on the other hand, cultivate the courage to doubt. Certainty is a luxury available only in a fantasy world, not the messy one in which we live. So, by emphasizing, as she did, apodictic truths and a dogmatic philosophy, Rand provided the pearl of great price that cultists everywhere demand: certainty.
And she encouraged that sense of certainty with every pronouncement, every argument. Hers was the rhetoric of conclusions, and she scoffed at those who insisted that thought and debate be open-ended. The value of a rhetoric of inquiry was beyond her ken.
Rand herself, then, was the chief source her cult. She may have preached individualism, but she did not promote her notions in a wise and guarded fashion. Instead, she acted as a person wholly committed to presenting the bulk of her beliefs as certain truths. What foolishness!
Us vs. Them
Individualism not only opposes universalistic collectivism, it constitutes a refined reaction to most sorts of tribalisms. The collectivein collectivism should not be seen in just those universalistic doctrines and movements, such as socialism. Collectives are everywhere. They are tight in-groups that define themselves to a large degree in terms of those other groups that they oppose.
Now Rand, who was a staunch enemy of tribal thinking, should have seen the damage she was doing to her own followers, and how she encouraged tribalism close to home. But she didn’t.
For some reason, she did not see the consequences of her use of the stark language of good versus evil. But the result is clear: these words and the persistence of her condemnations encouraged an in-group mindset in her followers. Though she avoided explicitly religious metaphors like
The Children of Light opposing
The Children of Darkness, it is easy to see how her condemnatory rhetoric encouraged in her followers precisely this orientation. Yes, Objectivists to this day see themselves as a beleaguered group of righteous people struggling against hordes of malign collectivists,
whim-worshipers, and the like.
But of course their enemies are often not nearly as malign as they think. Even when their enemies are enmired in error, many still regularly demonstrate good will. But Rand, by so often casting about the word
evil in her writings, elicited in her followers an extreme over-reaction.
Further, she trained her closest followers rigidly to adhere to her ideas by expelling them from her group when they committed some heresy or another. Upshot? A cult. No surprise: Cultic behavior produces cults, and the cult members’ in-group allegiances grow strongest when nurtured by out-group hate. And Rand supplied no small part of that hate.
Cruelty Is Fun!
The Brandens and their friends and relatives gave so much honor to Rand that the little woman became a puffed-up, prideful egomaniac (if she wasn’t one already). And this pride encouraged her tyrannical behavior, behavior that she seems to have enjoyed. As any child knows, it can be fun to be cruel.
And while Rand vented and expelled and strutted and preened, her followers could take similar stances to those lower in the group hierarchy, and even harsher attitudes to a few outside the group (though this is limited; without the need to belong, outsiders just turn away and regard extreme criticism as idiotic).
So the cruelty of cultic behavior has its own intoxicating qualities. Rand and her group were not exempt. Surely one reason many Rand admirers lurch into cultism is because it can be intoxicating and fun. Sometimes, we should look for no greater complexity to motives than unrestrained hedonism.
Guilt and Innocence
A friend informs me that one of the most significant ways Rand’s book appeal to young readers is as removers of guilt. Growing up, the rulership of cynical or just distracted adults can be stifling, especially when adults rely upon shame and guilt as their chief means of suasion. And Rand’s books can be great tools of liberation.
Now, I never felt all that put-upon by adults, and I managed to extricate myself from unreasonable charges of guilt all by my lonesome. Rand was never my savior. So my experience here is completely second-hand.
But I notice that, once one has been released from the bonds of guilt, it might be awfully tempting to venerate one’s liberator in a religious manner. And perhaps one reason religions repeat cultic patterns and histories over and over is because the response of gratitude too readily leads, in human souls, to extravagant reverence.
It certainly leads to that kind of reverence in many readers of Rand.
And I also note that the Rand cult, as it progressed in the Sixties, was not above using guilt. This is not too surprising. As a means of social control, guilt often out-performs other methods.
Concluding Personal Postscript
When I was very young, the dangers of group-think became apparent to me. One on one, I feared no one. But as soon as a bunch of kids got together, someone was bound to get hurt. The most important thing I learned in grade school was probably how dangerous people could be in groups. The patterns of thought and emotion that supported and justified bad group behavior made me cautious, early on.
Later, when I came to think about political matters, I took my suspicions about interpersonal dynamics and applied them to ideologies. For this reason, though fascinated by utopian movements in general, state socialism never tempted me. The dangers there were just too obvious for me to ever suppose that any powerful collective could be trusted.
To this day I see individualism chiefly as a means to counter-act the tribal and collectivist propensities of humanity.
With this as my background, Rand’s version of individualism never struck me as all that persuasive. And her readiness to explain all her enemies with one or two convenient notions seemed, to me, suspect on the level of in-group/out-group dynamics. Unlike most other of Rand’s admirers, I saw immediately how her ideas fed the cult, and how the cult fed her ideas. Unlike Mr. Long, I never saw a puzzle in the Rand cult. Her ideas, behavior, and cultic following were of a piece.
And, after some careful study, when I came to see massive error in her basic ideas (such as, once again, her definitions of egoism and altruism), I was not shocked. I do agree with one of Rand’s notions: moral error is often closely tied to conceptual error. And Rand, no paragon of virtue, relied upon confused notions to excuse her most vicious tendencies, and those confusions nurtured further viciousness.