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January 07, 2005


Ayn Rand vs Whittaker Chambers and National Review
Ayn Rand heartily alienated most intellectuals of her era- left, right and center. Even today, the mere mention of her name brings a vicious snarl to the lips of many people.

Partly, this was because she was a genius, and her work made irredeemable confetti of a lot of little worldviews. All of Marx's horses and all his lame professors couldn't put socialist or altruist philosophy together again after Ayn. So, some of this alienating couldn't be helped.

On the other hand, partly she was often, not to put too fine a point on it, a bitch. To be fair, she went spoiling for fights, let us say.

She is often described as a figure of the right, but the accuracy of that very much depends on exactly what part of "right" you mean. In fact, she was just about as unpopular among many conservatives, especially because of her extremely staunch atheism- which she insisted on as a bedrock of her philosophy.

Rand's most famous and specific break with the right wing came in the form of an infamous contemporary 1957 National Review book review for her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.

It may be infamous, but for a mere book review to be noteworthy enough to be infamous is some literary achievement. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the magazine, they now have this famous article on their website.
"Big Sister Is Watching You" by Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers was an ex-communist who had turned to become a religious conservative, famous as the main witness against Alger Hiss, and a hero among conservatives in a way that only a convert can be.

This apparently got him the deference to use the pages and prestige of Bill Buckley's magazine to write perhaps the most malicious and carefully dishonest hatchet job I've ever seen published as a "book review."

For a beginning hint of the dishonesty, he made a big point of dismissing the book as a silly trifle, hardly worth mentioning except that it seemed to be selling well. Then he spent 2700 words carefully taking the book apart as literature, and making a particularly malicious and slanderous conclusion.

For starters, he spent a few hundred words saying that the book was nearly worthless as a fictional story. Ayn Rand was, in fact, a very effective dramatist and writer, even if you didn't like much of the message. She had skills. You could argue about aspects of her approach that you find inadequate, but to pretend that she was a crappy writer with few redeeming features seems extremely hard to justify objectively, let us say.

But then he got to the meat of it, the party purging. He absolutely made her out to be a Nazi. "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!'"

This infamous money quote of the piece has been quite justifiably cited for years by Rand supporters as the textbook example of the dishonesty of her critics. For starters, the factual wrongness of this review is breathtaking. A big part of the point of her work was to denounce communism and fascism, and to dissect the philosophical underpinnings that enabled their monstrosities.

On top of which, Ayn Rand was originally a Russian Jew who famously fled the budding Soviet Union. For this ex-commie Chambers to be so speaking of this Jewish survivor of the Soviet holocaust is somewhere beyond words in its offensiveness.

Now, Chambers was a clever little dirtbag, so he whipped up a bunch of words that at least sounded like coherent sentences to make his point. Yet all those fancy words were just dressing up a cheap shot.

The basis of his accusation that Rand was a fascist dictator in waiting ultimately was simply that ALL atheists are ultimately fascist. He slightly camoflauged such a ridiculous statement by using the word "materialist" rather than simply atheist, which is what he meant.

The point of this was the weak old theistic warhorse that some God is supposedly the only possible source of morals or values. If you don't believe in God, then it's grab what you can and screw all else.

Besides being a hugely unjustifiable leap logically, it is also a ridiculously broad and sweeping statement. Moreover, he's making this same cheap argument directly in the face of Rand having gone into great ridiculous detail to explain exactly how else values and morals might be defined. Indeed, one of the biggest complaints against her, and against this novel in particular is exactly the overly excruciating repetition of just such details. Nor did his description fit any of her heroes.

In truth, Chambers appears not so much to have been writing a book review, but attempting a party purge- an instinct no doubt left over from his commie days. He seems to have been somewhat successful in that. Ayn certainly never had any association with anybody in the National Review orbit.

In a social encounter, Ayn once said to William F Buckley, "You're too smart to believe in God." For his part then, Buckley has apparently carefully made a point of never reading this obviously important book. For a man in his position, this constitutes a willful dereliction of duty. He knew better than this nonsense. Also, he knew how to avoid any serious challenge to his own foolish Catholic beliefs.

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posted by Al at 1/07/2005 03:28:00 AM

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