One Cheer for Ayn

by James Como (April 2016)

Some fifty-five years ago – I would have been fourteen: the Yankees beat the Reds in a great World Series, great, that is, if you were a Yankee fan – I began my lamentable Ayn Rand mini-jag. I found her at a local shop on Broadway in Astoria, Queens, called the Patrick Henry Bookstore. My father was along, and when we left he warned me against the shop. A man of the moderate Right, he called it “fanatical,” largely owing to the ample display of John Birch Society material and of None Dare Call it Treason, a conspiracy screed if ever there was one. I bought that book, it proved my father right (according to it my Polish grandmother was suspect), and I never returned to the store (which closed soon after). 

But I also bought Rand’s Anthem, nano-fiction compared to almost everything else she would write. In a nutshell: all are merely particles within a mass collective, so that, for example, the use of the first person singular is prohibited. I already had Animal Farm under my belt and was in the middle of 1984, so this book would not be thematically new to me. But the parable-like narrative of Anthem, with its rinsed-down simplicity, was unavoidably forceful, at least for me, and it was more frightening than Orwell. It’s impact lay in its three lessons: 1/ do not, ever, run with a herd, least of all merely for the sake of belonging, especially if it is the herd du jour – and that, no matter how emotionally seductive the herd; 2/ resist those who would have you do so; and 3/ thought-control comes in many forms. The effect on me would be both personal and social (i.e. public and political). I would recoil against any effort – whether deriving from party, cause, ideology, movement, the gang on 29th Street, or the Beatles – to sign me up and have me check my brain a the door.

I would get over my Ayn-crush, dispositively after reading her preposterous interview in Playboy. But I never got over Anthem; nor do I care to. With every passing moment of every passing movement I am grateful to Rand for inclining my thinking, temperament and character to . . . vigilance, for the impulse that Rand warned against is always with us, in its ubiquity, appeal and efficacy. Indeed, the collectivist trope has become more than a cultural norm; it is a pathetic reflex virtually bypassing the brain, unquestioned because largely unnoticed and thoroughly embedded in our public discourse. 

An example. We’ve all heard some version of: “Just think of what the white man has done to the red man .” Some version, because you can replace the perpetrator with Europeans, Jews, Doctors, Police . . . .  I’m sure you get the point, in fact have gotten the point sufficiently for me not to have to provide alternatives for the victims. The proclamation simply does not permit of individuation: one is guilty, not by mere association but by being a particle included in some mass, as though my immigrant Italian grandfather had killed American Indians.  

Now, this enormity and so very many others reside in nothing more than a logical error known as the Fallacy of Composition, which assumes that all particles in a whole share the traits exhibited by that whole, e.g. all Americans must be rich since America is a rich country. So inviting, easy, and (for its apparent conclusivity) so comforting is this fallacy that even the great C. S. Lewis (my magister) was guilty of its perpetration: “I observe how the white man has hitherto treated the black,” he writes in “Onward, Christian Spaceman.” There we have it. And there we can see how very many putative oppressors and their victims are thereby . . . not, and how much of our discourse depends on that fraudulence, and how much public policy and the weal that goes with it depends on that discourse. And how much civic enmity.

The antidote is an anthem of our own: being an individual, being individuated, existing (i.e. “standing out”) – and seeing each other similarly – and seeing through those who would disallow it. Some decades ago I was conversing with a run-of-the-mill New York Liberal colleague, a painter. There was some point of contention between us, but it was as yet inchoate in public discourse. I asked her position. Her answer: “I’ll have to find out what the Liberal position is before I can say” – a debased response. She would be part of Richard Rorty’s oh-so-pragmatic “us,” but not until she knew what the unindividuated hive believed (which is why I’m not a Conservative. Must I care, say, that Ted Cruz is the “real” Conservative running for the Republican nomination for president? Or should I care more that he recklessly voted against meta-data gathering?)

Of course, “standing out” has taken many forms, and as an antidote to “labeling,” to “lumping” together people as well as opinions that are more different than similar, or to stereotyping and all other forms of massification, it can go to extremes. I know I did (though never as far as solipsism or narcissism). Even if my politics were not extreme (at least not by pre-Obama standards), my individualism was. I realized how bad it had become when, at sixteen, I finished An American Tragedy and had thoroughly internalized the psyche of that great loner Clyde Griffiths: too far, too much, apart. It took a while, but central to my coming in (well, partially) from the outer orbits was Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, with our membership in the Body of Christ – not as particles but as separate, distinctive organs – and our Communion of Saints, along with the understanding that still we are separately saved: called by our very own names, watched as our very own bones knitted in our mother’s wombs. Just so could I now see individuality lending itself to communality. (Or, to paraphrase Lewis, instead of studying people I should get to know them.)

My belief in individuality as trumping race, ethnicity, ideology or any other collectivi (with the possible exceptions of close family and a very few friends) is that it affords me Freedom, a freedom worth more to me than all the equality in the world that anyone could faithfully promise. Freedom to work, to acquire, to give as I choose; to dissociate myself from beliefs and values I reject, to think and speak as I please (within the bounds of Lord Moulton’s moral admonition of  Obedience to the Unenforceable), and freedom not to be sullied by envy. A freedom that affords a person – that is, a Person – the dignity of experiencing the consequences of exercising that freedom. In short, better a Person than a particle, for personal dignity and genuine identity beat any mass, always.

So into the bin with all your Rand – her Aristotle and philosophies of reason and theory of capitalism and . . .  All can be gotten more leanly, honestly, and usefully elsewhere – toss it all, except for Anthem. (Do not assume that what marks the whole of Rand applies to each of its parts!) Let that, or any version of it you choose, be the antidote to the toxic Fallacy of Composition, Rorty’s Us be damned.


James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: essays on conversation, rhetoric and the transmission of culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).


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