December 17, 2011

Americans were greedy long before Atlas Shrugged

Creative Commons via Alternet
I see a new Alternet column is making the rounds of liberal bloggers, etc., claiming, per the title, that: "Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. into a Selfish, Greedy Nation," and per the subtitle, that: "Thanks in Part to Rand, the United States is one of the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world."

Note: The following comments are not meant as in any way being a personal attack on any of those bloggers, Google+ or Facebook posters. Rather, they're simply my assertion, and documentation, that greed is a far bigger, more ingrained, more diversely rooted problem in America than a simple attack on Randian Objectivism would suggest.

The reality? American greed was around long before Ayn Rand. Look at all the gold rushes, and "salted" gold and silver mines, of 100-150 years ago. Look at the rampant railroad speculation, to the degree that Congressmen accepted stock shares on the floor of the Capitol in the Credit Mobilier scandal. Look at Grover Cleveland's hard-hearted response to the Panic of 1893.

Rand, and Randian Objectivism isn't cause; it's pseudo-intellectual justification for a worship of money and greed that was around long before Ayn Rand popped out of the womb chain-smoking cigarettes as Ann Coulter's fairy godmother. Alexis de Tocqueville, in observing what he perceived as the alleged leveling of class effects in America, cautioned how such leveling and mass democracy would likely lead to a rise in materialism. And he was right.

Beyond that, the success gospel, or prosperity theology, per the Wiki entry, has a history in America, too, arguably going back to Ye Olde Massachusetts. Plenty of proclaimed Christians who would be horrified to be lumped with Rand are, if anything, even greedier than she is.

So, let's get past these attempts to blame Rand for all of today's GOP hard-heartedness just because the likes of a Paul Ryan or Rand Paul are in Congress today.

Prosperity theology, if anything, provides more of a "veneer" for more greed in America than Ayn Rand does. It certainly has a LOT more followers. You can see Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, and others hawking their ideas, sermons and wares all over the place. (I've never seen a Randian website where anybody had a $20,000 marble commode lid for sale like the one Meyer originally has. [Note to Joyce Meyer: Buying shit like that doesn't help you heal from child abuse. Note to Meyer devotees: Wake up and smell the shit in the commode and on her TV show, eh?]) I don't see a Rand channel on cable TV, though. Hell, New Agers, with "The Secret" and older versions of the same idea, are a more integral part of American greed today than is Objectivism.

But, in part because New Ageism is liberal, and because not all success gospel preachers are politically active conservatives, they don't make as easy of targets as do Randians, along with the politicians mentioned above and Alan Greenspan.

But, even in the political sphere, success gospel preachers who are also politically active conservatives surely have more influence than Randians. George W. Bush likely never cracked a page of Rand in his life, but President "Jesus is a philosopher" hung out with success gospelers both black and white.

And, there's another dirty secret. The success gospel isn't limited to white, so it's harder to criticize its effect on American greed for that reason, too. It's a lot easier to bash Alan Greenspan or Paul Ryan than it is the likes of T.D. Jakes.

Beyond that, the column ignores other history. For example, the "charity inducing" Harriett Beecher Stowe? She wound up living in post-Reconstruction Florida and supporting Jim Crow. Nathaniel Branden has moved further beyond Rand than Levine credits. (And, his writing shows it. The Branden of the 1990s and beyond is further separated from Randianism than is the Branden of the '70s or 80s.)

And, per Tocqueville, let's admit that he had a fair degree of true insight about the connection between materialism and modern American democracy. Whether one is "liberal" or "conservative" politically.

In a democracy, especially one that theoretically (if not actually) has class movement, it's actually easier for greed to get inflamed, if anything. This gets back to the Occupy Wall Street protests, too. What needs reform goes beyond even political structures and into social psychology and social structures. That said, perhaps morality can be legislated in some ways, including through more progressive taxation, but this is a virus, a retrovirus that's deeply engrained in America's cultural DNA. Let's not pretend otherwise, whether with simplistic blame games or something else.

For a more in-depth view on this, and on how computerization may actually be making this all worse, read about Adam Curtis' documentary "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace."

I guess what I'm really getting at, ultimately, is what skepticism involves, for me. It's more than just the science-minded skepticism of "professional skeptics." Rather, my skepticism is also influenced by philosophy, and says let's expect to see little in the way of blacks and whites in the world. In an America of 310 million people, now, technology (per Curtis), mass-movement democracy and semi-leveling sociology of the 19th century, and religion, American-style going back to Plymouth (not Jamestown, nor, totally, Santa Fe, N.M., Catholicism) are all factors on American materialism with longer bloodlines and more adherents than Ayn Rand. (Jamestown was secular greed from the 17th century predecessor to a joint-stock company and its board of directors. The Spanish in Santa Fe knew New Mexico held no riches of gold.)

Related to all of this is the issue of "blame." Greed isn't necessarily just a conservative issue. And, greed also isn't limited to money. If we talk about greed for fame and other things, the iGeneration mentality of at least a segment of Occupy Wall Street shows that greed is pervasive indeed.

You and I are greedy. Zen monks from Tibet can be as greedy for fame as Steve Jobs. It's part of who we are.

One could even trot out a "Gods Must Be Crazy" type of claim that private property accelerated greed 10,000 years ago. That said, to the degree it's true, I don't think any anti-Randians want to go back to Paleolithic times. Ditto for those who say we need to go back to "natural living," of course; they never volunteer themselves to be part of the 90 percent of the Earth's population we'd have to kill off to sustain pre-agricultural population.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a fun post, and I agree in principle, even though I am a radical Christian and one might assume I might think otherwise. Most christian theologians of both conservative and liberal persuasions regard the prosperity theology as a heresy that has resulted from the marriage of innate personal greed and its pseudo-religious justification culled from tortuous interpretations of biblical texts. It's sort of like how text is used in theatre--one can make it say whatever one wants through enacting it. The fact that this heresy has become so pervasive with certain independent Christian sects shows the extent to which ideological considerations influence socio-religious practices. And it has always been so.