Via a reader, the National Review has started running retrospective articles from their 50-year run (I’m looking forward to their contemporary articles on Martin Luther King and the SCLC). Wading through their archives, a reviewer named Whittaker Chambers took a surprisingly dim view of Ayn Rand:
The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: “Excruciatingly awful.” I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous.
Worth reading in its own right, especially if you had the same reaction as the reviewer after suffering through Rand’s turgid prose. Rand nurtured a freshman’s political triumphalism – Truth as a force so obvious, so irresistible and so politically one-sided that dissenters must be unserious, malevolent or insane – that freshmen adored. They still do. Check out this passage on the psychopathology of power and certainty:
Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked.
I’ve clocked my hours in the ranks of liberal activism and I can affirm that Rand has her finger on a mentality that creeps in wherever you find self-righteous people working for some Cause. That’s well and good, but liberal activists count for squat right now. It also chillingly reflects the mentality of the friendly folks running the country. Pick any critic of the last five years and think about how the government reacted. You always hear some combination of Liberal Activist (as if that’s somehow worse than, say, partisan rightwinger or rightwing activist), Disgruntled Ex-Employee, Promoting a Book, Mentally Imbalanced or Aiding the Enemy.
Classic example, Richard Clarke. At the end of his book Against All Enemies Clarke commented that Bin Laden might as well be telling Bush what to do for how well the president has served al Qaeda’s interests. The White House responded swiftly:
WILKINSON (3/22/04): Let me also point something. If you look in [Clarke’s] book you find interesting things such as reported in the Washington Post this morning. He’s talking about how he sits back and visualizes chanting by bin Laden and bin Laden has a mystical mind control over U.S. officials. This is sort of X-Files stuff, and this is a man in charge of terrorism, Wolf, who is supposed to be focused on it and he was focused on meetings.
Score one for the Mentally Imbalanced dodge. Later in the same smear campaign we heard Liberal Activist (Clinton guilt-by-association variant), Disgruntled Ex-Employee and Promoting a Book. The only dishonest reply that we didn’t hear, which seems like it would have been a hard sell, is Aiding the Enemy. Full disclosure, I don’t read Powerline so I could be wrong about that. Of course they’re fooling us, or at least trying to, with their boneheaded dodges. But to what degree are they fooling themselves? If Rand has an inside track on the psychopathology of power then maybe they genuinely can’t conceive of an honest critic.
Anyhow, happy five-o, National Review.