Here’s something a lot of you never knew about me: I used to be way big into Ayn Rand.
Some readers are now reacting strongly, and the rest need an explanation, so here it is. Ayn Rand was a writer and philosopher, best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She developed a philosophy she called Objectivism, which has as its basic tenets 1) the world we live in is the real world and we should go right ahead and live in it, 2) logic and reason are the only good ways for us to apprehend the world, 3) we’re all individuals who are primarily responsible for our own lives, and 4) laissez-faire capitalism is the best way for us to all get along with each other. There’s more to it than that, of course; I’m boiling it down.
When I say I used to be way big into Ayn Rand, I don’t mean that I’ve since outgrown or repudiated all of that; I just mean that I don’t spend much time thinking about Rand’s ideas and books any more. That’s partly because I’ve internalized most of it and partly because I’m sick of having to argue about it all the time (so it’s pretty bright of me to be writing this blogpost, I’m sure you’ll agree).
There are many excellent comics blogs on the internet, written by people I like and respect tremendously (well, to the extent that I know them, anyway). Here’s what some of them think about Ayn Rand:
- Harvey Jerkwater says, “Rand’s binary logic and inflexibility of mind has stunted the intellectual growth of millions by creating an asinine theory of “Reason” based upon a child’s view of the world. "Objectivism" does not survive even the slightest contact with adult reality.” And he adds more here.
- Jim Roeg mentions “the toxic and voluminous output of Ayn Rand”
- Scipio has scorn and/or pity for “people who can read Ayn Rand without laughing or puking”
This attitude of my colleagues is not uncommon or atypical of the rest of the world. And such opinions don’t apply only to Rand herself. I’ve seen her… ‘followers’? whatever… described (again, often by people I like and respect) as… how shall I describe them? Rapacious cultists? Immature reductionists who think the world owes them big time? Resentful, turn-back-the-clock power fantasists? All of those. (What’s worse, I can’t say that those descriptions aren’t sometimes accurate. For all I know.)
Plus, I personally know of a guy (never met him, you understand) who is/was an Ayn Rand fan, and who very creepily stalked a friend of mine.
Kind of makes it hard to wave your flag when you’re surrounded by stuff like this.
Like Terry Goodkind, for example. He’s a fantasy author who’s heavily influenced by Rand (which is a bizarre concept in and of itself). I read an online chat he participated in once, and he came across as a total jerk. (For one thing, he’s one of these people like J.K. Rowling who thinks that the fantasy genre was a barren wasteland before he came along and saved it.) One of the reasons (not the only reason) I don’t claim to be an Objectivist is because I don’t want to be associated with people like that, who are basically ruining things for the rest of us. Say what you want about me, but I do try not to be a total jerk.
Basically I think Rand gets a bad rap. Some points:
- Rand lived through the Russian Revolution as a child and, not surprisingly, didn’t enjoy the experience. Then she came to the United States and loved it. But she was appalled that Communism was so much in fashion among the intelligentsia of the time, and made it her lifelong mission to ensure that she wouldn’t see America go through what Russia did during the Revolution. My point is, Rand is often described as hateful and actively evil*, but really she was far from it: she was trying to save the world.
- The main points of Rand’s philosophy are objective reality, logic, individualism and capitalism. What exactly is so outrageously objectionable about that quartet? Even if you disagree with one or another of them, they’re pretty normal ideas.
- It’s true that she wasn’t the world’s greatest prose stylist. But very few books have even come close to Atlas Shrugged when it came to keeping me turning pages.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a superhero-themed blog, so I suppose I’d better get on with just how Ayn Rand is relevant to superheroes. Ideally this is where I’d discuss Steve Ditko and Mr. A. Unfortunately I don’t know hardly anything about Steve Ditko or Mr. A. These people do, though:
…to which the only thing I’d add is that one of those articles misreads a passage and mentions ‘killing your ego’ (or a similar phrase) as something that Ayn Rand would advocate. Which isn’t so. Rand was totally in favour of the ego (by which she didn’t mean strutting around like you’re all that and a Fotomat; she meant things like self-respect, rational self-interest, not letting people step on you, things like that). Other than that they’re both excellent articles.
The comparison I want to make is between heroism in the superhero genre and heroism in Rand’s fiction. Heroism, you see, is what Rand was all about. She stated definitively that the goal of her writing was the portrayal of the ideal man; she only got into all the political and philosophical stuff because somebody had to, and would have been happier not to deal with it at all.
The biggest difference is probably in the nature of the evil faced by the two kinds of heroes. Most pop-culture-created mythologies have a Manichean (I think I’m using this word correctly) aspect to them, in this sense: they portray good and evil as two equally powerful opposing forces, forces that just exist, and humans can choose to support one force or the other. Good and evil in superhero comics is a lot like this.
Good and evil in an Ayn Rand book are completely different, though. They aren’t forces; they’re descriptive terms. If something helps people live well and happily, it’s good. If it hinders people from living well or happily, it’s evil. Furthermore, evil isn’t powerful. If an idea is evil, all you need to beat it is a good idea; it only gains power if it can schmooze good people into going along with it.
I’m on record elsewhere on this site as an admirer of The Incredibles; I think it’s the best superhero movie ever made. But I’ve read in a couple of places about how it’s an Objectivist movie. Now, I’m all for The Incredibles, and I’m for Objectivism, with reservations, so if this was so I’d be the first to admit it. But I just don’t see it.
I know where the idea comes from, mind you. Two scenes: the one where Helen and Dash are in the car, arguing about Dash doing school sports (“Everyone is special, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying no one is.”) and the one where Syndrome reveals his sinister plan (“I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers. Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super... no one will be!”). Both of those scenes, it’s true, could have been written directly by Rand. One idea that continually recurs in Rand’s writing is that of jealous or malevolent mediocrities trying to destroy greatness by devaluing it, by elevating the mediocre to the status of the great. So, yes, in that sense the movie does contain Objectivism.
But there’s so much more that just doesn’t fit. First, pace Steve Ditko, the superhero genre is not particularly compatible with Objectivism. Superheroes fight evildoers directly; Objectivist heroes defeat evil mostly by ignoring it. Superheroes don’t use their abilities for personal gain; Objectivist heroes don’t use their abilities without personal gain. Superheroes help others directly and immediately; Objectivist heroes help others indirectly and in the long run. Superheroes and Objectivist heroes are similarly stalwart, courageous, honest, physically attractive and sweet-smelling, but superheroes express these virtues through physical combat while Objectivist heroes express them through creativity, generativity, productivity.
Second, one of the themes, perhaps the main theme, of The Incredibles is the nuclear family. When the Parrs are together, a united family, they’re unbeatable; the secret to defeating them is to separate them physically or through dissension. Now, there’s nothing there that’s inconsistent with Objectivism, but it’s certainly not a subject that Objectivism normally addresses.
Third, the villain of The Incredibles is Syndrome, a guy with a tremendous amount of scientific and technical genius, and who has used that genius to make himself filthy stinking rich, mostly through selling weapons. In an Ayn Rand novel, a guy with that description would be the hero. (Well, except for the weapons part, probably.) Not that you can’t have an evil businessman in an Ayn Rand book… but if you did, he wouldn’t be any good at it.
(I was thinking of going into how Ragnar Danneskjold (a character in Atlas Shrugged) is as close as Rand ever came to writing a superhero, but it would take a lot more explanation than I want to write, so forget it.)
For my next trick, I’ll demonstrate how The Incredibles is much more similar to the Schwarzenegger movie True Lies than it is to the Fantastic Four…
Some other time.
* I’m not exaggerating.