Part 3: Ayn Rand & Octavia Butler…Comparing Unlike Authors

You know that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?  I would add this:  All I Needed to Know about Human Beings I Learned from Science Fiction.

Of course, the subject matter–human beings, the nature of being human–is fundamentally disturbing.  In the early 1990’s, when I read Dawn by Octavia Butler, I hadn’t really faced up to how disturbing, so her book really freaked me out.  In it, humans have destroyed most of the Earth and each other, and an alien race comes to rehabilitate the Earth and save what humans they can.  But they discover that human beings are inherently hierarchical and competitive, incapable of peace (as history also reveals), so they imprison them with love–they bond so that their humans experience intolerable pain if they stray too far away from physical proximity.  They can also enter the minds of their humans.

What freaked me out was the idea that we are incapable, as a race, of living in peace.  That our natures, our unevolved brains, were leading us to destroy ourselves and our planet.  And excuse me for being Ms. Doomsday, but, uh, anyone notice anything happening on the planet that might fit the description?

I think I threw the Octavia Butler book down on the thick golden sand of Herring Cove beach, said some f-this and f-that and dove into the ocean.  Then I probably came back and ate too many chips and hummus combination thingeys.

But here’s the point.  Ayn Rand, the survivor of a totalitarian state, of oppression and terror, had to know what Stanley Kunitz (I think it was him) said.  “There is nothing we won’t do to each other; and no words we won’t use to deny it.”  If you know that, up close and personal, how do you live?  How do you develop faith in yourself and other people?

The answer is simple.  You tell yourself that not everyone is like that…not everyone is hierarchical, not everyone is competitive, not everyone evolved in some Darwinian fashion; there are exceptions, you tell yourself, and me and mine are among them.  Then you go about defining me and mine.  For Ayn Rand, talent, intelligence, non-conformity, innovation, strength, independence, were the me and mine.  For Democrats, compassion and help for the poor and suffering, social justice (to some extent or another, and not enough for me), equality, are the me and mine.  For Catholics, sinners, heterosexuals, believers, are the me and mine.  But it doesn’t really matter, does it?  In each case, for each group, we are attempting to stave off the idea that being human means, among other things, being hierarchical and competitive, needing to dominate, and destroy through that or because of that.

What about Mother Theresa?  Gandhi?  Jesus?  The Buddha?  What about Barack Obama, for that matter?

Yes, yes, human beings do remarkably generous things, even to the extent of giving up their lives.  In the Holocaust, one of the worst atrocities in history, we saw incredible destruction; and we saw heroism, especially in the Resistance and the camps themselves, where people helped each other.  Of course, as Sophie’s Choice reminds us, some people did terrible things to survive, and we don’t talk about that.  They were victims, and targeted, and they became what their perpetrators made them become.   We forgive them for that, even as we cringe.

The question, though, isn’t whether we possess goodness, kindness, generosity, courage, soul.  The question is whether, as an entirety, the human race can overcome its inherently competitive and hierarchical nature.

Ayn Rand’s characters were intransigent in their belief in freedom, they were extreme in following their talent and nothing else; she lacked an understanding of psychology that would have allowed them a fuller complexity.  I think of the driving need to think you can be other than the ones who made you suffer, that you can be utterly distinct–perhaps that’s why it’s most commonly younger people who love her work.  There’s a time in life when you want to be utterly distinct from your parents, if you didn’t admire them, which, get real, many of us didn’t and don’t.

There is nothing we won’t do to each other; and no words we won’t use to deny it.

Oh, how we long to escape that sentence, to say that it is true of everyone but me, everyone but mine.  How we long to have faith in our humanity, to define humanity as only the good.

I am interested in reality.  I am interested in what would happen if we quit defining the world in terms of us and them.  I am interested in holding all of who we are, of what we are capable, the degraded and the sublime, the divinity and the destruction.

Octavia Butler’s vision in the book Dawn is utterly bleak.  In her vision, human beings don’t deserve freedom, because once they have it, they begin to destroy.  At the same time, the experience of their slavery is intolerable.  She leaves the reader with no answer, with only the double bind.

Which is how I leave you, today.  But not without hope.  I hope for one moment, I hope to know peace again, in the next moment, and the next.  I hope to hold us all in my consciousness, with love, knowing that tonight or tomorrow or next week I will be selfish with my partner, or manipulative, or even angry and unskillful in my anger, knowing that I will judge another human being, even if it’s only for cutting me off in traffic.  And then I will bend down, brush the hair off my beloved’s forehead, and tell her this, I see you, all of you, and you are yours, and that is enough for me.

Then I’ll wake up the next day, complaining, asking her to change.

We are all everything, all the time.

May we be at peace with what is.

And may our brains evolve, as they so need to do.

Part 2: Ayn Rand and the Person Practicing Buddhism

I live in gratitude for meditation and Buddhism.  Because of Buddhism, I noticed this:

  • I wrote a blog about a writer I loved when I was 17-22.
  • This was very controversial.  People wrote comments.
  • I had to go meditate, because some of the comments were personally insulting.  Or at least I constructed them that way.
  • I watched my mind.  How when someone disagrees, or argues, my mind starts arguing back, trying to prove I’m right, trying to win.  My body floods with adrenalin and I get all racy.  It’s not pleasant.
  • Then I decide to write a blog about watching my mind go nuts and my body flood with adrenalin.  Of course, while I’m deciding this my mind is still plotting how I’m going to slip in insults and witty comments and prove I’m right.  Because that is what a mind does.
  • I start to think about why bipartisanship seems impossible, and how a controversial blog shows that once the mind decides a disagreement is an attack the body floods with adrenalin and no one learns anything because they are too busy defending ideas they had in the first place.
  • Of course this is also my mind saying how much more enlightened I am because I am noticing my mind being crazy even while I’m still being crazy.  Ayn Rand’s not the only one with elitist tendencies (as in, I still think I’m smarter than everyone, and I notice this because I practice Buddhism and besides it’s pretty obvious.)

As it turns out, I am a person practicing Buddhism whose life was saved over and over by books, among other things.  Little Women, when I was about nine.  To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was twelve.  The Fountainhead, when I was seventeen.  Another Country, when I was 20.  I am still, in many ways, nine, twelve and seventeen.  I still remember vividly the moment those books gave me, and the permission to be myself.  I am grateful to the writers, and I love the feminism in Little Women, and the character of Jo, the compassion in To Kill a Mockingbird and its rage against racism. I love the passion for individual freedom and expression in The Fountainhead and James Baldwin’s profoundly complicated understanding of how all our prejudices intersect even as we try to reach each other, exemplified in Another Country.  Right now, in this moment, I am focusing on my personal experience of these books, and the need I had for their ideas, for their images and rising song.  I am doing this on purpose, because I do have an idea I want to explore here, and the idea is that all our ideas come from personal experience, and nothing is objective (sorry Ayn Rand).  Perhaps that is why we defend our ideas instead of questioning them–it is so, so personal.

One of the commenters on my last blog wrote about Ayn Rand’s ideas of personal freedom and integrity as adolescent; he said that freedom and integrity must be connected to community, and the complexity of community must be reflected in the morality of the individual.

I don’t really know what he means.  It’s a philosophy I’ve been reading and hearing about–this idea of caring about your community and your place in it, about making your decisions with this larger picture in mind.  About developing your self with this larger picture in mind.  I’ve been interested in this philosophy because I can tell it comes from a life experience I haven’t had, and that always makes me curious.

And so, it comes to the personal.  Ayn Rand was obsessed with communism and its dangers, enough to testify for HUAC, not against individuals, but against a movie that had, in her opinion, communist propaganda.  Oh, how we become what we hate.  That HUAC would do more to violate rights of free speech and to destroy that lives of innovators, that its legacy would be the Hollywood of today (with its plastic values and oversimplified stories), makes her testimony a complete act of self-betrayal–and she was a champion of individualism and individual integrity.  I can only imagine how blind she must have been on the subject of communism, how angry she must have been at American communists, who had never had her experiences of deprivation and oppression.  She believed in the individual because of what she lived, saw, breathed.  Because of what it did to her psyche and soul.  Betrayed by a country that destroyed lives, how would an Ayn Rand develop a philosophy based on group anything?  (And when she developed a community, she had to dominate everything about it to feel safe…so totalitarian.)

It’s personal.  I have listened to the Obamas, to their life stories, to their ethics; I admire them and envy how deeply loved they were by such decent people.  But much of what they speak about is foreign to me (minus A More Perfect Union, I get that).

I grew up bullied at school, oppressed by my religion as a girl and a queer person, oppressed by my country as a woman (the ERA failed when I was still in high school).  At home the oppression was more personal, with as few personal choices as they could give me–and the oppression of the religion showed up as a philosophy of self-sacrifice…meaning that I was to sacrifice myself for everyone in my family, as well as anyone who asked, with no hope of return (because that would be selfish).  Then I escaped, and found that I was queer, and that the world wasn’t really having it, and I might get fired, and I couldn’t get married.  I turned to the queer community, but bisexuals weren’t exactly popular there, either.

Intellectually, I have come to understand that community is important, but my experience, right up through my twenties, taught me that groups of people were not to be trusted.  Like Ayn Rand, my experience didn’t lead me to a philosophy based on making decisions based on altruism (which I understood, as she did, as a tool for manipulation because that is what it had been in my life).  I didn’t base my way of seeing the world on a larger vision of community, either.  Frankly, I was like, “F785 these people.  Get me out of here!”

At the developmental time of life when we decide what we believe about other human beings and life (adolescence, as it so happens), I decided that morality was about being true to self, not true to family (they treated me poorly) or community (just as poorly) or even country (female and queer, a 2nd class citizen).  I defined true to self against what I saw around me, not in emulation of it.  Honesty was and is the center of my value system, because growing up in the bourgeoisie, I saw only false values and people who lied to impress others.  I didn’t think about being loving or kind then, even though I often was, mostly because I loved my siblings and friends so deeply.  I did start to think about those things, eventually, and when I did I realized that I could never consider lies to be loving or kind.  I’m not talking about walking around confronting people (though I did this as a teenager and then some).  I’m talking about telling the truth about my inner reality as best I understand it as a form of caring, instead of telling white lies to make people feel better.  It can be said that I hate any pressure to take care of people’s feelings.  I’d rather know them, tell them the truth, and trust them to be honest with me.

So I’m intrigued by this intersection of morality and community, because I hope it’s not the same old song and dance about how I should sacrifice my life to make other people feel better or more comfortable.  I don’t quite know what to make of it.  I know my own well-being has to factor in; and I’m certainly not interested in oppressing anyone else because I see that as about as contrary to my own well-being as pretty much anything on earth.  So what are people talking about?

If I want to defend myself, I can say that some of the hardships and oppression in my life made me capable of seeing life differently, and some of them deeply hurt my ability to participate as someone with less oppressive experiences might be.

But here’s the thing–the person with Michelle or Barack’s experiences of community and love–that’s not the only world.  That’s not the “real” world.  The real world holds their experiences and mine and Ayn Rand’s and the survivors of the Holocaust and Kosovo, and people of privilege.  Whose view is idealistic?  Or negative? Or correct?  All our experiences come from the same world; we just live in different parts of it.

In Buddhism, no view is any of those adjectives.  Judgment is removed, and one looks at what is.  How can we put the many views into conversation?  I mean, we’re human, it will be construction of reality rather than the real thing, but if we can step back from aversion, craving and “I’m right,” we might construct a more accurate mosaic, or at least one that offers the possibility of peace.

Ayn Rand’s deepest mistake, for a person believing in freedom above all things, was forgetting that all voices should be heard.  Buddhist or not, I believe that.  I believe I may figure out why someone might trust a community, when my own experience tells me that’s insane.  If I listen.  If I let the adrenalin drain out of my body, and just consider.

Because, hell, Buddhism or no Buddhism, thinking is really FUN.

Ayn Rand and the Tea Party

People always expect that someone as socially liberal (radical, really) as myself will be ashamed of the passion I had for Ayn Rand in my late teens and early twenties.  Often, I am asked questions aimed at uncovering my youthful folly.  So I would like to say that I’m not ashamed of my interest in Ayn Rand, or the fact that I’ve read all of her books, or that I was a registered Libertarian for a number of years.  Mind you, I took heat at 18, 20 and 21 for belonging to a third party, because it’s a two party system and if you’re realistic, you should belong to one of those parties and vote within them whether or not you believe in what they stand for.  I’m quoting, of course, my ex-girlfriend the train wreck, who was a Republican and voted for Reagan twice.  Committed to being in the closet, she found no contradictions in voting for a homophobe who ended up being responsible for not meeting the demands of the epidemic that AIDS very early on showed signs of becoming.

Enough on my thirty year resentment of her (really, I made the mistake of staying with her for more than half a minute…and she was brilliantly talented, beautiful, charming and funny…I should get over this).

And back to Ayn Rand.  The reason I’m on Ayn Rand today is that my partner watched a PBS special on conservative politics which contained Paul Ryan’s quotations of Ayn Rand along with clips from the movie Atlas Shrugged, which I am very glad I did not see.  There were also clips of interviews with Ayn Rand, all about her philosophical and political views, which include no taxes, no social programs, the privatizing of things like the post office and the building of roads.  Ayn Rand’s capitalist views were extreme, but the PBS special and the attacks on her philosophy were biased and inaccurate.  The Tea Party’s use of her philosophy is also partial and inaccurate.  Like, they just don’t get Ayn Rand!

First of all, Ayn Rand’s views–unashamedly both extreme and elitist–weren’t based on a passion for privilege, which is how they’re being interpreted.  Ayn Rand was passionate about freedom–individual and personal freedom.  She believed that communism and socialism created totalitarian states in which individual freedom, creativity and innovation were squashed, and that innovators within such societies destroyed themselves out of despair.  Her first novel, We the Living, is about the destruction of such people, and contains a haunting despair and grief for lives lost.  It is extremely critical of her native country and its treatment of artists.

The Fountainhead reveals a disillusion with the United States, in which conformity and pandering to the masses (she was an elitist, remember) replace a totalitarian government.  Howard Rourke, the protagonist, based to some extent on Frank Lloyd Wright, is an innovative architect who no one will hire because he’s not just regurgitating ideas of the past.  In The Fountainhead, Rand lays out an Abraham Maslow-like peak experience, found only in solitude, of life as ecstasy.  These experiences, she explains, come only outside the common pool of belief and conformity.

Atlas Shrugged is about the rich, but it is about the innovative rich, whose inventions do not belong to their creators.  Her elitism was the elitism of the brilliant and talented, of the wealthy only if they also fell into that category.  Her love of capitalism came from the belief that in capitalism only ability is king.

And okay, elitism is elitism.  Ayn Rand’s views are focused on people like herself–brilliant, driven, non-conformist innovators.  She doesn’t seem able to look at history and the pre-union industrial leaders who exploited and underpaid their employees, locked them in factories which were unsafe, sent them underground in unsafe conditions, and then murdered the early labor organizers who tried to help them.  Corporations and their owners were dominated by greed at all costs, leading to inhumanity and power at all costs .  Ayn Rand seemed incapable of incorporating these facts into her understanding.  She saw only that the government controlled the lives of individuals and that this should be stopped.

So, yes, like the Tea Party, she would abolish taxes on the rich.  She’d also abolish taxes on everyone else.  And like the Tea Party, she’d get rid of all social programs.  However, she’d also want big money out of government if that impeded freedom (although she might not want it out if she saw legislation and more government as the only way of making that happen), the end of special interests (if those special interests created legislation), individual freedom for minorities…an end of legislating all person freedoms.

The Libertarian party has long stood for social freedoms like gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose…because that party embodies Rand’s values and was started by her followers (she created a salon that eventually became pretty cultish, but included very prestigious economists, psychologists and artists).  So, PBS got her wrong.  And the Tea Party is misinterpreting her as well.

I mean, give the woman a break.  She grew up under extreme oppression and wanted to end government control because she saw what it could do.  I found her when I was living in an all-Catholic suburb, going to an all-Catholic girls school, and under the control of very oppressive parents.  I saw, in her work, a worship of personal freedom and individual integrity.  I also hated that she made Rourke’s rape of Dominique erotic and positive, and at 17, this confused me, because how could you worship freedom and make personal violation not only okay, but the basis for connection?

I have to say that in spite of my reservations, at 19 I went and did my first psychological intensive with Nathaniel Brandon, who was her primary acolyte for many years, and who took the basic premise of his psychological approach from her philosophy.  He was an arrogant, homophobic, brilliant jerk.  He believed, though, that self-esteem came from a commitment to reality at all costs, and that if you lived with illusion and denial, your ability to esteem yourself would be limited, because only accurate perception, congruent with reality, made you able to survive in the world.  (He needed to read some Buddhism and meditate, obviously.)  Here’s the thing–Brandon had a point.  A radical point–commitment to reality, to non-conformity, to not giving up your personal vision unless you were genuinely convinced it needed changing is radical.  There’s no compromise, no people-pleasing, no codependence.  (For what it’s worth, I stood up and confronted him on being personally shaming to members of the weekend in front of 200 people when I was 21.  And get this, he told his followers to shut up so he could listen and think about what I said.  Not all bad.)  (He also said, when Ayn Rand died, that she openly admitted she didn’t get psychology, and that this was her downfall–she couldn’t see herself.)

The point of all this is simple–if you’re going to quote a philosophy that is based in a passion for individual freedom, get it right!  Ayn Rand’s elitism was an elitism of the talented, the brilliant and the original (as long as you thought she was the best of all those things, I understand from reading essays by her immediate circle), not an elitism of the Republican rich.

I hesitate making this correction, in case some Tea Party member reads it and actually makes a more Libertarian argument that might be relevant to people’s lives.  Because right now, the Tea Party is so irrelevant.  Which is a very good thing.

I am not ashamed of loving Ayn Rand’s work, of falling in love with her passion for freedom and integrity, for sharing her fears of big government (and now, big government run by the special interests of corporations).  I have grown past her understanding of the world, which was over-simplified and rigid, but I still remember what it was to pick up The Fountainhead and feel less alone…because at 17 I was talented, smart and unable to conform, and she told me this didn’t make me strange, or worthy of being bullied, but instead something remarkable.  I still feel enough of that passion, in spite of her many flaws, to write this and say, yes, she was an elitist, shaped by a history and psychology she would never admit, she created a cult-like following, and could bear no real challenge to her ideas.  But she was not for privilege at all costs.  It’s unfortunate that she thought all the rich were like Steve Jobs–who would be a real hero in her philosophy, compared to special interests who look for government favors because they can’t truly compete in the marketplace she revered.

I’m not a Libertarian any more and haven’t been for a couple decades at least.  I’m an Independent.  I still can’t conform, and I still love freedom and integrity, and I think the Tea Party sucks, but occasionally a Republican can have a good idea because people everywhere are capable of independent thought, just as we are all capable of being lemmings following one leader or another.

For what it’s worth.

PS–I’m including a comment from FB that I think is relevant and important…which is, how can someone who stood for freedom have testified for HUAC?  I didn’t know until today that Rand testified, and it’s terrible and disappointing that she did.  But her testimony reveals her experience with and terror of Communism (and propaganda) and tells a lot about her.  Below are the comments from FB.  Here is the link to Rand’s HUAC testimony:

From FB:
Commenter: But what about freedom of speech, thought, and expression? The woman did testify before HUAC.
Me: I didn’t know that (and it’s awful).  I just read her testimony on line.  She was a woman of vast contradictions, but the point of my blog is not to demonize her or to misuse her philosophy….but to understand her as accurately as possible.  Ironically, she understood her HUAC testimony as a defense against communism and propaganda and the lies which could lead to loss of freedom, which is as contradictory as advocating nonconformity and then forming a cult of followers who adhere to her beliefs.

Dear Mr. President,

First, I have to tell you how much I loved your first memoir, Dreams from My Father.  It made me feel like I knew you, and the fact that you have a gift for language made me wonder why you ever became a politician.  You’re that good.

Of course, if I hadn’t already been a little in love with you from reading the book, your speech, A More Perfect Union, on the complications of race, would have done it all by itself.  I sobbed through the whole thing.  You, like James Baldwin, understand our dilemma, our complications, our humanity in its best and its ugliest manifestations.  It is a privilege to look at the world through your eyes.

Basically, I think you are a very good man.  I hope that lots of other people think this, too.  Not just a president.  But a really good person.

Because I think you are a decent human being–and not a dry drunk, like our last president, or a sex addict and codependent, like the one before him, and therefore the sanest person that’s been in office in 16 years–I have to say that I feel deep compassion for you.  Your job, always impossible, has been made more so by the legacy of war and economic disaster.  I imagine, in the political commercials, that I see sadness, discouragement, and exhaustion in your eyes.  I want to say that I don’t know that anyone could have done better, and while I don’t know if your plan for the economy is necessarily effective in the long term, I’m not sure what plan would be.  I don’t know if anyone does.  So I want to say, Mr. President, that I know you are trying to do good, and that you are capable of knowing what goodness is (I’m not sure the last 2 did, since their respective addictions kept getting in the way), and so I wish you metta, really, lovingkindness, peace, ease.  Reading your memoir, I imagined what it would be to have been so loved, to have received those particular sacrifices, and what it might be to feel you must live up to those expectations, what it would be to want to, but also, maybe, to wish for something easier, at least once in a while.

So I don’t know if I should say congratulations on your win.  I’m not sure winning was personally good for you.  Of course, the thought of Mitt Romney as president makes me want to shoot myself, but I still wonder how someone as sensitive as the writer of Dreams from My Father, someone able to hold the complicated understanding of race in A More Perfect Union, will withstand four more years of what I imagine must be the hellish stress of Washington and the power plays and manipulations and just general bad behavior of people convinced they are so, so, right.  And that you are wrong.

Here’s what I hope–since you’re stuck with the job now, that you accept help from smart and trustworthy people, that you find a sense of team, and that you trust yourself, that you have moments of peace, that the love of those close to you sustains you through it all.  Basically, I wish you well.

And, by the way, thanks for coming out in favor of gay marriage.  It made me glad to be American, and glad I worked for you the first time, and voted for you twice.  If you feel like overturning DOMA in your spare time, well, I’d appreciate it.  Not that I want to add to the pressure, of course.