Thursday, December 12, 2019

Involving Orcs

Andrew Koppelman

Our adversaries are irredeemably evil. They are animated by malice and greed. They want to enslave us, to make us mere instruments of their unworthy desires. We have nothing to discuss with them. The task of clear-eyed writers is not to engage sympathetically with their ideas, but to expose them for what they are so that the people can unite to defeat them. 

This is the narrative offered by Ayn Rand, whose mid-twentieth century work still commands a huge audience. She advocates, as the only politics decent people can embrace, an extreme and harsh libertarianism. Those who fail to perceive the moral necessity of unregulated capitalism are evil or stupid, probably both. All social insurance and regulation, from Social Security to the prohibition of pollution, is a step toward Stalinist tyranny.  

The blogger John Rogers famously observed

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

Actually they both involve orcs—inherently demonic creatures, irretrievably evil. And so does Lisa Duggan’s new book Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed. Duggan capably shows how Rand’s story rationalizes plutocracy and cruelty.  In her depiction, Rand is an orc and so are her fans. 

Duggan is a careful and honest scholar, and everything she says about Rand is true. But she is selling a different version of the same Manichean narrative. Her portrait of the libertarian right is as one-sided as Rand’s portrait of the redistributive left. Duggan fails to grasp some of the deepest sources of Rand’s appeal to otherwise decent people—the value of individual creativity, the benefits of capitalism, and the possibility of state overreach—and so misses opportunities to find common ground with many who are drawn to Rand’s minimal-state dogma. Drawing people, particularly young people, away from that dogma is morally urgent, but it won’t happen unless Rand’s legitimate attractions are understood. 

That is the beginning of my newly published review of Duggan’s book at the New Rambler, here.

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