I recently posted about Vladimir Shlapentokh’s opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, in which he misrepresents Ayn Rand’s ideas and calls for Tea Partiers to distance themselves from her. In that post, I focused solely on his absurd claims about Rand’s politics; here, for those who may be interested in but unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s views, I’d like to dispatch some of Shlapentokh’s other fallacious claims.
Shlapentokh accuses some of “merely formulating opinions of [Rand] from hearsay” rather than having “genuinely read Rand’s novels and essays,” thus implying that he has read her works. In fact, judging from the inaccuracies in his piece, either Shlapentokh has not read Rand’s works and is dishonestly implying that he has, or he has read her works and is dishonestly misrepresenting her ideas.
Shlapentokh claims, “The issue of taxes—at the crux of [the Tea Party] movement—was addressed by Rand only in regard to big companies, and never as a concern for ordinary people.” In fact, Rand said very little about taxation (and, to my knowledge, nothing about taxing “big companies”). Rather, she focused on the fundamental principle that governs such derivative matters, that of property rights:
Man has to work and produce in order to support his life. He has to support his life by his own effort and by the guidance of his own mind. If he cannot dispose of the product of his effort, he cannot dispose of his effort; if he cannot dispose of his effort, he cannot dispose of his life. Without property rights, no other rights can be practiced (source).
Rand defended the rights of individuals to retain property (including their earnings) from all forms of government seizure as a matter of principle—applicable to “big companies” and “ordinary people” alike.
Shlapentokh also claims, “Rand was fully indifferent to the workers in her novels, whom she described as primitive beings—‘savages’ in the words of Atlas’s steel mogul Hank Rearden, arguably one of Rand’s most beloved personages.” Setting aside his intimation that “moguls” such as Rearden are “nonworkers,” Shlapentokh provides no quote from either Rand or Rearden to this effect—which is unsurprising given that none exists. Rand certainly celebrated the achievements of industrialists, championed their rights, and demonstrated that we all benefit from the activities of such producers:
When you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.
When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think. . . (source)
But it does not follow from Rand’s defense of the most productive among us that she categorized the less productive as “savages.” Rather, she characterized productive work “in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability” as a virtue, noting: “It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind” (source). As for the term “savage,” Rand reserved it for literal savages (uncivilized men) and those who choose to mimic them—including statists.
Shlapentokh also insinuates that Rand was opposed to America’s core principles, because, as he says: “In Rand’s most popular novels, ‘Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ it is impossible to find any praise of the American Revolution or the American Constitution.” This is like suggesting that J. K. Rowling is anti-British because the characters in her Harry Potter series of novels fail to praise the Magna Carta and English Common Law. Is an author intellectually obligated to praise in his fiction the founding events, documents, or mores of his country? To ask the question is to demonstrate its absurdity.
In any event, it is worth noting that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are essentially hymns to the virtues and founding principles of America. Their themes speak to the crucial, life-serving importance of rational thinking, independence, productiveness, individual rights, and liberty. It is also worth noting, contrary to Shlapentokh’s claims, in Atlas Shrugged Rand does directly praise the achievements of the American Revolution. For instance, the novel’s main protagonist describes America as having “displayed to an incredulous world what greatness was possible to man, what happiness was possible on earth,” while a secondary protagonist pays “reverent tribute” to America as “a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement” (source). And if one expands one’s survey of Rand’s thought to include her nonfiction, one finds her praising the Constitution as an “incomparable achievement” (source) and praising America and its founding:
I can say—not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic roots—that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world (source).
As a matter of easily observable fact, Rand identified and defended America’s core principles throughout both her fiction and her nonfiction. As I discuss here in response to Shlapentokh’s claim that she “espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy,” Rand, far from being anti-American, was arguably the most profoundly American thinker of the 20th century.
With his flagrantly dishonest piece on Ayn Rand, Shlapentokh has vaporized whatever intellectual credibility he may once have had. And, by publishing the piece, the Christian Science Monitor has tarnished its reputation as a quality journal. Although I doubt we will hear an apology from Shlapentokh, I hope the Monitor publishes something in acknowledgment of the nonobjectivity of his piece, which is clearly an injustice to Rand and a disservice to readers seeking the truth about her ideas.