Friday, April 20, 2012

The Naivete of Objectivism

When I left Munich at the end of July, 1968, I was already in the midst of one of the roughest periods of my life. Societal violence was at a peak, not only back home in the US, but there in Europe and, of course, over in Vietnam. The war attracted daily attention, but assassinations and riots were becoming the staples of our news--and parts of all of them trickled down to a personal level.

Prior to leaving DC a month or so earlier, I had been attacked in a luncheonette at 14th and U Streets--just before the police sealed off the area and started lobbing in tear gas. The only other white person in the area and I were rescued and escorted out by a group of Southern Christian Leadership Council members from the south, who formed a cordon around us and deposited us on the other side of the police barrier. All of us had marched that morning from the Capitol to the SCLC headquarters with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy as part of one of the events surrounding the Poor People's Campaign.

My summer job in France became one in Switzerland as a result of the May riots in Paris. I lasted only three weeks of the 14-hour, 6-1/2 day-a-week job, but I did learn to enjoy cigarettes and beer--addictions that would plague me for the next twenty years. I was sixteen, and wanted to see something of Europe besides the inside of a resort hotel high in the mountains. When I fled, I had five weeks to spend before my flight would take me from Brussels to New York and almost exactly $100.

Quite quickly, I learned how to stretch my money, sleeping rough when I could, only paying for a bed in a youth hostel when there was no other option or I needed to bathe. In Germany, the GIs, not much older than I, were always looking for new companions as they cruised through whatever bars would let them in. They were generally good for drinks, smokes, and even food. When I had to, I would buy a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, and maybe some yoghurt, making it do for a day or so. A train ride was a luxury; hitch-hiking was the way to get around.

Sometimes, things got sticky--or much worse. One of those times was that last night in Munich at the end of July. I snuck into a youth hostel in the morning and stood under a shower for close to an hour, soaping myself over and over again.

Finally feeling a little less disgusting and sick, I dried myself, dressed and sat outside with a number of others, talking about where each of us might go from there. I met a woman who wanted to go to Prague, to experience the exuberance resulting from the Czech Spring--but she didn't want to hitch-hike alone. I agreed to go with her--anything was better than staying in Munich--and traded the books in my bag for a couple I hadn't read.

They made a strange pair, I found, when eventually I read them: Ayn Rand's Anthem and Erich Fromm's The Sane Society.

The next weeks saw me through a rather harrowing exit from Czechoslovakia some days before the Russian invasion and a night in Bonn when German students stoned the Russian embassy, breaking as many windows as they could. I made it to Brussels three days before my flight and stone broke. After two days, people in a hostel where I'd asked to be allowed to rest (in the courtyard) took pity on me, fed me, and gave me a bed--in exchange for work in the kitchen.

Those experiences, even while they were happening, even as I was reading, made me hate the Rand book and all of the ideas of "selfishness" that I would find she stood for. I was learning the humility of luck and coming to understand the vagaries of chance. None of us makes our own way in the world, purely on our own abilities. Each of us relies on others, on the relics of the past, and on the randomness of the turning wheel. The world is beyond our control, for the most part, and beggars our understanding.

My shock and revulsion from the encounter with Rand threw me right into Fromm's arms, when I started his book. It truly did seem like a vision of a sane world, a welcome distraction from the craziness then surrounding me and from the insanity of Rand.

Now, almost 44 years later, I see it was also the naivete of Rand. And I am continually shocked by just how many influential Americans are drawn into that purposeful naivete, that willingness to ignore what really goes on in the world to create justifications for one's own selfishness. Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, Ron Paul, and Paul Ryan, just to name a few.

All of us experience loss, violence, pain, and disturbance of many different sorts. To actually imagine that anyone can come through those in any one individual life still believing in Rand's "objectivism" boggles my mind. That some of our leaders actually have the arrogance to imagine that they really do know--and can control--the world through their individual self-reliance is even beyond that.

Do they not see their limits? Even their own objectivism should teach them that it is a flawed conception of the world, that none of us can possibly know enough to be a confident, solo actor. All we ever really learn is how little we can know and how wrong we usually are. Any philosophy arguing otherwise is more self-deception than philosophy.

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