Sunday, February 19, 2012

Don't Douthat

Ross Douthat, conservative New York Times columnist, devoted his column Saturday to the shortcomings of the liberal and conservative views on abortion prevention, with an emphasis on liberal failures. His thesis? The last part of "Safe, legal, and rare" is not true, as proven by state-by-state statistics. States with liberal laws on abortion, contraception, and sex ed., he says, have lower birth count numbers only because their unwanted pregnancies--which are similar across the board--are terminated by abortion at higher rates.
But the liberal narrative has glaring problems as well. To begin with, a lack of contraceptive access simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in unplanned pregnancy in the United States. When the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed more than 10,000 women who had procured abortions in 2000 and 2001, it found that only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of teenage mothers found similar results: Only 13 percent of the teens reported having had trouble getting contraception.
This is not true. Or, at least, it is not the whole truth.

Yes, the two studies Ross cites both show only a small percentage, 12 or 13 percent, of women who had procured abortions and teenage mothers, had trouble accessing contraception. This is true as far as it goes, which isn't very. Ross's criticism is of the liberal theory of abortion prevention as a whole, which downplays abstinence education and similar moralizing in favor of, yes, increased access to contraceptives, but also education on how to use them and prevent pregnancy.

The results bear this out, and in fact directly contradict what Ross is saying (emphases mine):
Forty-six percent of women had not used a contraceptive method in the month they conceived, mainly because of perceived low risk of pregnancy and concerns about contraception (cited by 33% and 32% of nonusers, respectively). The male condom was the most commonly reported method among all women (28%), followed by the pill (14%). Inconsistent method use was the main cause of pregnancy for 49% of condom users and 76% of pill users; 42% of condom users cited condom breakage or slippage as a reason for pregnancy.
Approximately one half (50.1%) of these teens were not using any method of birth control when they got pregnant, and of these, nearly one third (31.4%) believed they could not get pregnant at the time; 21.0% used a highly effective contraceptive method (although less than 1% used one of the most effective methods, such as an intrauterine device [IUD]); 24.2% used the moderately effective method of condoms; and 5.1% used the least effective methods, such as rhythm and withdrawal. To decrease teen birth rates, efforts are needed to reduce or delay the onset of sexual activity, provide factual information about the conditions under which pregnancy can occur, increase teens' motivation and negotiation skills for pregnancy prevention, improve access to contraceptives, and encourage use of more effective contraceptive methods.
A third of women not using birth control did so because they simply believed they wouldn't get pregnant, and  an enormous percentage of those who used it and got pregnant anyway did so because they were using it incorrectly or inconsistently. This is damns liberal policy only in the sense that it isn't being implemented well enough.

When Ross moves into the pregnancy rates of red vs. blue states, he gets into even shakier territory:
What’s more, another Guttmacher Institute study suggests that liberal states don’t necessarily do better than conservative ones at preventing teenagers from getting pregnant in the first place. Instead, the lower teenage birth rates in many blue states are mostly just a consequence of (again) their higher abortion rates. Liberal California, for instance, has a higher teen pregnancy rate than socially conservative Alabama; the Californian teenage birth rate is only lower because the Californian abortion rate is more than twice as high.
He doesn't say which Guttmacher Institute study says this, so I took a look. The very first result for "rate of unintended pregnancies by state" on Google is a Guttmacher study, from 2011, that reaches the exact opposite conclusion as Ross:
In 2006, the median state unintended pregnancy rate was 51 per 1,000 women aged 15–44. Most rates fell within a range of 40–65 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 women. The highest rate was in Mississippi (69); the lowest rate was in New Hampshire (36). Rates were generally highest in the South and Southwest, and in states with large urban populations. In 29 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of pregnancies were unintended; in nine, a consistent upward trend in unintended pregnancy rates between 2002 and 2006 was apparent; no state had a consistent decline.
This isn't to say he's wrong about Alabama and California, which indeed do have similar rates. But note the mention of "states with large urban populations." I looked at a comparison of both unintended pregnancy rates and demographic data for Alabama and New Hampshire, red and blue states which don't have especially large urban centers, as well as New York, a blue state which does (California is missing a lot of the variables I was looking for) and has a similar unintended pregnancy rate as Alabama.

The results are telling: when looking at children living in poverty, Alabama and New York are at 25% and 20% respectively, while New Hampshire is only 10%. When the rate of unintended pregnancies per 1,000 is broken down along ethnic lines, the differences are startling.

Teen Pregnancy Rate by Race/Ethnicity

New Hampshire
New York
Non-Hispanic Whites, 2005
African Americans, 2005
Hispanics, 2005

African-Americans are disproportionately poor, as are Hispanics, who often face additional language barriers. Poverty goes hand-in-hand with a lack of educational opportunities. And as these results have shown, the poverty rate in these states runs parallel with the unintended pregnancy rate. Since so many of these pregnancies happen because of lack of correct information, it is not at all a stretch to conclude that the poorest Americans are not as educated as they could be about pregnancy prevention.

Poverty isn't a slam dunk explanation by any means, but it's certainly a factor, and one that Ross doesn't even begin to consider. Far from disproving the liberal idea of birth control, the data, properly examined, largely vindicate it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Rand Down

The Ayn Rand business of the past few months was starting to take over the blog, which is more general interest and eclecticism, so I started another blog, Objectionism, to house all the old postings, as well as the new. I just posted my final entry on The Fountainhead, considering its popular appeal.

I also happened upon a fellow traveler who is blogging every chapter of Atlas Shrugged in a lead-up to the presidential election. Taylor Bettinson hangs his hat at Atlas Clubbed and I encourage you all, all three of you, to check him out.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How the Culture Wars Are Like Like Star Wars

Besides the blatant sperm-egg imagery, the kinkiness of Darth Vader's helmet, and the glowing condom/vibrator Luke Skywalker is wielding, I mean.
Andrew Sullivan, in looking at an ethics-based attack on Obama's revised contraception plan (which I hope to dig into later on), gets at the heart of the theocratic mindset:
Hence his view that no society should allow heterosexuals their rights and homosexuals theirs' and live and let live. Because such neutrality would encourage the idea that gays are equal to straights - which is material if not formal acquiescence to evil. That's how gay marriages hurt straight ones, in his view.
The notion that gay marriage hurts straight marriage has always been laughable to anyone who doesn't buy into it, but I think I actually get where the theocrats are coming from. Think of the Star Wars trilogy. Awesome. Classic. Immaculate. (I know, I know, Jedi's not so hot, and the original is less a great movie like Empire than a special effects showcase, but just go with it. It's not like the history of marriage is so sterling either.) Now think of the prequel trilogy. Middling when not awful, a complete misfire that squanders the legacy of the original.

This last part is key. Many bad, or even potentially bad (think of the recently-announced Watchmen prequel books) spinoff projects have been rationalized by the standby that "even if it's bad, it doesn't harm the original work." But do we actually believe this? We certainly believe in brand reputation. We understand that a cultural entity is the sum of its constituent elements which can't be easily separated or compartmentalized away. Calvin & Hobbes is rightly remembered as a classic because Bill Watterson brought it to a close at its height. As a result our memories of it are still fond, and revisiting it is always worthwhile.

Contrast this (as I did off-handedly quite some time ago) with The Simpsons, which ought have cashed out at the end of the 90s after several brilliant seasons but instead continued on and is still with us today in a significantly diminished capacity. The diamond:shit ratio has suffered badly; Calvin & Hobbes was and is great, while no one can think of Star Wars or The Simpsons or The Matrix without wincing as if they just imagined two dudes on their honeymoon.

Looked at this way, it makes total sense that gay marriage/contraception/masturbation(?) opponents are so vehement that these behaviors not be given legal sanction, even in the form of neutral allowance. If you believe gay marriage is objectively wrong the way The Phantom Menace is objectively bad, you can't be live and let live about it. You "care" about the institution enough that you don't want its weird sequel damaging its good name, and so you'll fight like hell to see that Marriage 2: Electric Bugaloo doesn't come to pass.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ayn Rand: Ayn Kampf

As I was just about to start The Fountainhead a month-and-a-half ago, I referred to it as an act of self-prophecy. What I meant is that, whatever its literary concerns and conceits, it functions as a veiled account of Ayn Rand’s struggles as a writer and predictor of her eventual fame, as well as the vehicle of same. (For a contemporary analogue, consider Lady Gaga and how The Fame Monster is predicated entirely on its creator’s own sudden superstardom.) It tells a (highly romanticized) story of struggling to success, and was the catalyst for its author’s own stratospheric sales and public profile after years of obscurity and toil. There’s a worn-out maxim that says talent is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and never was that more true than with Rand, whose literary skills were average at best (and, perversely, worsened the further she went into her career, and her own recursive mind), but who was hell bent on becoming a successful author nonetheless and refused to let anything stop her.

In her early Hollywood days Rand worked a number of odd jobs, including a waitressing gig from which she was fired on her first day, and a sales job in which she made only one actual sale. In keeping with her austere standards of self-presentation and in stark contrast to Roark’s easy-going asceticism, she made sure her jobs were out in the suburbs, where her future husband and professional contacts would not see her menial laboring. It was in these days, starting in 1935, that she began planning her second novel.

The genesis of the book was, as mentioned before, a disgusted response to a casual acquaintance whose only goal in life was to one-up everybody else, living life “second-handedly,” by being defined by others and not oneself. Thus was born Second-Hand Lives. For the story proper Rand drew heavily from the biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a popular hack, Thomas Hastings. (The irony that “practically the entire story” of a novel which exalted originality and scorned borrowed fortune should be drawn so heavily from two figures, seems to escaped her.)

In a way, however, the book is autobiography: details from Rand’s life—such as an episode in which a school assignment to write an essay on the wonders of childhood prompted Rand to turn in a denunciation of childhood as a gross and irrational phase of one’s intellectual development—show up, often with little disguising. More interesting is the way certain obstacles of her career are inverted: at one point Howard Roark pointedly turns down offers from a client to heavily advertise one of his creations. This is presented by Rand as heroic individualism. Yet it was precisely a lack of promotion and support that sunk Rand’s first novel We the Living; the publisher destroyed the type after the book’s initial run of 3,000, to the author’s great chagrin.

The gestation of The Fountainhead was long and troubled. Outlining, which had begun as early as 1935, stalled out in the search for a climax. It was eventually solved by the architect Jacques Kahn, for whom Rand had gone to work as part of her research: he it was who told her that affordable public housing was the most bedeviling problem of architecture. But after writing the first of the book’s four sections, writer’s block—“the squirms,” as she called it—struck. Money troubles returned. Royalties from Night of January 16th and an advance on the new book eventually dried up, Knopf’s contract for the book was not renewed after she missed an extended deadline, and Rand parted acrimoniously with her agent, who had been unable to sell the book to other publishers (as story Rand tells it is that the book was rejected by twelve houses all told, but this includes Knopf, with whom she parted by mutual agreement). At one point she borrowed money from some friends, which she later paid back but never ackowledged for the hated altruistic act it was. To provide income—her husband’s acting career had sputtered out at this point, and so she was the household’s breadmaker—Rand had to work long hours evaluating potential script stories for Paramount Pictures.

She also busied herself with other projects, including campaigning against Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of Wendell Willkie, writing and publishing (in England) the novella Anthem, and adapting We the Living to the stage, in a production entitled The Unconquered which closed after only five days and ended up costing her more money than she made. At one point she was so discouraged by “things as they are” that she considered giving up working towards “things as they should be” altogether. She would have, had her husband Frank O’Connor not spent hours convincing her not to be beaten by those she despised.

She persevered, and got a contract and an advance from Bobbs-Merrill on December 10, 1941, a fortuitous date; had it been signed but a week later, the contract would have been cancelled due to paper rationing for America’s incipient war effort against Japan and Germany. Her contract gave her a year to complete the manuscript. This deadline she made, by engaging in writing binges of days at a stretch, which allowed her to produce sometimes an entire chapter a week. This she accomplished by way of amphetamines that she had begun to take to concentrate her energies, and would continue to take in the following years and decades, which no doubt contributed to her increasingly stormy behavior later on.

When the book was at last finished, edited (she hacked out a whole character and subplot), and renamed, the critical response was bewilderment if not outright hostility to its cheerful immorality, its “gargoyles” of characters, and its overcooked speeches. One of the rare exceptions was The New York Times(!), which called Rand “a writer of great power.”

The popular response was far more enthusiastic. After a slow start the book sold out its initial run of 10,000, and went into several reprinting. Rand had told one of her few close friends at the time, the conservative columnist and novelist Isabel Paterson, that she would not be satisfied with anything less than a hundred thousand copies sold, an enormous number for any author, much less a relative unknown as herself. The Fountainhead sold 100,000 in 1945 alone, by which time Rand was back in Hollywood, working on the film adaptation directed by King Vidor and directed by Gary Cooper, whose script she wrote, and for whose rights she was paid $50,000.

Rand’s fight to the top was both easier and more difficult than she made it out to be. Her fury with trying circumstances is reflected in how she exaggerated certain aspects and papered over others. And she certainly did not pull it off by herself, though she certainly thought she had; she would later say she neither asked for nor received help before she became famous. The Fountainhead, above everything else, is a curious look into how she saw herself and her years in the trenches. Its closing passages, with Dominique Francon riding a construction elevator to the top of the new Wynand Building, past all other heights and structures until “there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark,” makes a neat parallel with Rand’s own ascendency.

As far as sheer grit is concerned, Ayn Rand earned her success. Yet there were certainly other writers looking for their big break, and of them many far more deserving, on artistic and literary grounds. The real question is why The Fountainhead became the smash hit that it did, a question worth pursuing, even (especially!) by Rand’s detractors.

Contraception Contradictions

The ongoing spat between the Obama administration and Republicans over whether (the insurance companies providing) Catholic Church-run organizations' health insurance plans should pay for contraception is largely partisan--it's really only because Obama is pushing it that Republicans are going to the mat to fight access birth control (I also can't help but wonder if Democrats would have let it slide if Obama had quietly taken the Church's side). But outside of the Washington snake pit there are people who sincerely believe the Republican argument--perhaps it's more correct to say the Republicans take their side insincerely--so it's worth unpacking what's really being argued here. At heart this is another proxy battle in the conflict between liberal and conservative views of liberty.

In an absolute sense, having the requiring Catholic organizations to provide services the Church finds morally abhorrent is an infingement on their right. As a private religious organization they should, in theory, be free to provide or withhold services to whomever they want without interference. No citizen or group wants "the government" to dictate what they should be doing.

But this kind of situation does not occur in a vacuum. For one thing, and this must needs be stressed, contraception is a settled issue for the majority of Americans, and Catholics. The only people really bothered by it are evangelical Christians and Catholic clergy, comprised 100% of "celibate" men. As has been pointed out already, if the religious organization in question were enforcing Sharia law or excluding black people from coverage, many would be singing a different tune.

Yet this is not merely a popularity contest; there is actually a principled reason for overriding this "absolute" liberty that is just as much concerned with freedom. The libertarian perspective is generally, 'keep the (federal) government out, and let whatever happens happen, because private actors should be free to do what they want.' But the federal government is not the only powerful actor at work here. State and local governments, corporations, and organizations like the Catholic Church, wield huge influence over our lives. The example of "excluding black people" isn't a hypothetical; it was the reality in huge swaths of this country up until the 1960s, and it took federal legislation to end it, legislation which Congress's most visible libertarians, the Pauls Ron and Rand, have infamously criticized for its federal intrusion in the private sphere. When it comes to the contraception issue, the Catholic Church owns around 12% of hospitals in the United States, and is acquiring more all the time. If we are going to allow giants, they need to be mindful of who their out-sized feet are stepping on.

It all comes down to first principles. If you start with the premise that an active government is a bad thing by definition, then even if you believe in a woman's access to contraception, or the equality of black people, the fact that those rights are denied in huge parts of the country by private or local actors is regrettable but ultimately acceptable. If your "highest value" (to use and subvert a little Randian terminology) is actual liberty for as many people as possible, then you care about the size of government only insofar as it protects the rights of others, from others.

I think the conservative/libertarian critique of over-sized government has its place, especially in regards our current deficit situation. And using the government to restrict the rights of one group to ensure the rights of another is in its way messy and contradictory. But such is life. If you care about personal liberty, then you need to care if your system of ethics and the policies it implies are actually making people more free. From a personal liberty standpoint, it doesn't make any sense for a handful of people who will never have to worry about birth control yet can still find reason to be incensed with Griswold, to dictate to 50% of their employees what to do with their bodies. A ≠ B.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Ayn Rand: Capitalist Realism

Strangely enough, for all of her fiction’s endless speechifying, Ayn Rand considered herself a novelist before a philosopher (she considered herself a great many other things, mostly narcissistic superlatives, but work with me here). It’s a fairly important distinction. Her fiction is much more than mere agitprop, which uses the confines of normal storytelling as a vehicle to preach a given message. For Rand’s whole approach to storytelling is marinated in her ideas on everything else, and so its bent approach makes reading it a decidedly different experience.

The Fountainhead shares the structural elements of a normal story: beginning, middle (more like two, really, the first punctuated, like the second, with a trial), climax, dénouement. A protagonist with a goal, and obstacles thrown in his path, an antagonist with goals athwart his own. So far so good. But it is the characters, colored by Rand’s singularly odd views on individuality, which drive the action, and give the book its hypnotically strange effect.

All of the book’s principle figures were conceived as symbols, with Howard Roark as “a man who is what he should be,” Peter Keating “a man who never could be [man as he should be] and doesn’t know it,” Gail Wynand “a man who could have been,” and Ellsworth Toohey, “worst of all possible rats. A man who never could be—and knows it.” This schematic view of plotting has the dual effect of making the characters both larger-than-life and two-dimensional, as if they were fixtures on a billboard. They serve the same basic purpose, channeling Rand’s radical individualism. The peculiar effect of her ideas about rationality and will, however, makes the proceedings feel, paradoxically, pre-ordained.

Consider what was perhaps the biggest surprise I encountered, dealing with a secondary character, Catherine, Toohey’s niece and Keating’s sometime fiancé. Such a pitiful, clingy creature is she that I was fairly sure she would kill herself out of sheer helplessness, especially after Keating ditches their wedding to shotgun marry the ice queen Dominique Francon. She instead resurfaces near the end of the book years later, reborn as a Washington bureaucrat with a lack of personality remarkable even for an Ayn Rand character:
”It wouldn’t have worked, Peter. I’m temperamentally unsuited to domesticity. It’s too selfish and narrow. Of course, I understand what you feel just now and I appreciate it. It’s only human that you should feel something like remorse, since you did what is known as jilted me.” He winced. “You see how stupid those things sound. It’s natural for you to be a little contrite—a normal reflex—but we must look at it objectively, we’re grown-up, rational people, nothing is too serious, we can’t really help what we do, we’re conditioned that way, we just charge it off to experience and go on from there.”
I ended up being more right about her fate than I had guessed: rather than merely kill herself, she killed her self.

Catharine’s lack of identity is as much a constant as Roark’s unflappable confidence, Keating’s venality, and Toohey’s super-socialism. Their essential nature is fixed, and there is never any real chance that they will ever change, for better or worse. Their defining traits merely become more pronounced, and grotesque, as the stakes raise ever higher, but the there is no real tension, no possibility of redemption or betrayal or surprise that hasn’t been telegraphed from the start. As busy as The Fountainhead's scenario is, it’s all mellow, no drama.

Yet cardboard characters aren’t derived (only) from general hackishness, rather they proceed directly from Rand’s own ideals of what constitutes a proper human being. As said by Steven Mallory, Roark’s sculptor disciple:
I often think that [Roark]’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die some day. But he’s living it. I think he is what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you met last. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, they deny, they contradict—and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard—one can imagine him existing forever.
Rand, who claimed her beliefs had remained essentially the same since she was a teenager, is here essentially making a virtue of stubbornness and refusal to grow as a person, under the same usual banner of willpower: the real individual knows he’s right, so why should he change? Her characters are demonstrations of this idea, as are the very many things they do and say.

Along with melodramatic plotting, Rand’s fiction is infamous for its didactic speeches and dialogues that go on for pages and pages at a stretch. My favorite, if it can be called that, involves newspaper magnate Gail Wynand and Roark going on a month-long yacht cruise—without Dominique Francon, who they’re both in love with and to whom Wynand is married. Wynand can’t stop looking at Roark’s half-naked body, “at the threads of water running down the angular planes,” that makes him think “of the yacht’s engine, of skyscrapers, of transatlantic cables, of everything man had made.” The scene’s tone veers between unintentional 300-style homo-erotica and an After School Special with amazing gracelessness:
”What’s left then? Where does decency start? What begins where altruism ends? Do you see what I’m in love with?”

“Yes, Gail.” Wynand had noticed that Roark’s voice had a reluctance that sounded almost like sadness.

“What’s the matter with you? Why do you sound like that?”

“I’m sorry. Forgive me. It’s just something I thought. I’ve been thinking of this for a long time. And particularly all these days when you’ve made me lie on deck and loaf.”

“Thinking about me?”

“About you—among many other things.”

“What have you decided?”

“I’m not an altruist, Gail. I can’t decide for others.”
This weird fusion of belief and behavior follows through to the book’s very end, which involves, lest we forget, a manically idealistic dynamiter being found “Innocent” by a jury. Most polemicists would stop with putting speeches in their characters’ mouths, but Rand’s conception of humans being driven by reason and ideals permeates the story’s very blood and marrow.

By traditional—objective?—literary standards, The Fountainhead is a failure: its characters are bold but ultimately dull, its plot bizarre, and its message delivered with all the subtlety of a boot stamping on a human face forever. Yet, my snarky post title notwithstanding, it’s unfair to consider it mere propaganda--that it bears some resemblances to the blandest Soviet pablum is a function of a circular political spectrum in which at a certain point the far left and far right begin to look alike. Nor is it pop fiction, which never aspires to be more than merely mediocre entertainment.

Instead it is a frantically ambitious product of its creator’s very idiosyncratic sensibility, the kind that thinks turning thought experiments into hundreds-of-pages-long plots on which to hang philosophical dialogues is the pinnacle of storytelling. As a result the book is, like a Tyler Perry movie, freakishly compelling and almost always interesting. The normal standards cease to apply. It’s beyond good and awful.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ayn Rand: The Beautiful and the Damned

If it hasn’t been made clear yet, Rand was an idealist of sorts, albeit an extreme one. She almost certainly had a personality disorder—clinical narcissism, and likely a strain of Asperger’s—that wired her brain such that she insisted her logic, and everyone else’s, be consistent and constant, to a pathological degree that leaves room for neither emotion nor accident. Thus what she considered an ideal is different from most; rather than a guideline or example to be striven for, if never fully achievable, she saw ideals as standards that must be adhered to without deviation.

Consider Christ, the most common model of moral guidance. Even if humanity could collectively agree on exactly what he stood for, we could never live in a world where every single person followed his example of ascetic, chaste, material poverty, (nor is it even certain we would want to). In any case, there is an implicit understanding when speaking of human behavior that one will always short of perfection, whatever that is (and Christ is above all a symbol of forgiveness).

 Rand likely would have called bullshit and said that any such caveat essentially betrays an ideal in advance and makes a mockery of ethics, which one could concede is true in an academic and totalitarian sense. This absolutist view of ethics and life is the keystone of her extremely idiosyncratic Objectivism, which is spelled out in explicit detail in the The Fountainhead’s infamous courtroom speech.

 Some context: the pathetic and now hopelessly declining Peter Keating comes to Howard Roark with the problem of designing affordable low-income housing. Roark comes up with a workable design and agrees to let Keating submit it as his own, with the stipulation that nothing is changed. When other architects eventually meddle with it and build it with numerous useless additions, Roark dynamites the structure and lets himself be caught at the scene. With echoes of Rand’s play Night of January 16th, Roark is put on trial not for the property destruction laws he’s broken, but for his society-defying individualism, which he spends seven-and-a-half pages justifying.

The thrust of Roark's speech, which has been touched on previously, is essentially a redefinition of egoism. Essentially, it says, the creative individual has always been responsible for advances in mankind, and has every step of the way been resisted:
Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures—because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer—because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Whatever the legend, somewhere in the shadows of its memory mankind knew that its glory began with one and that one paid for his courage.
Creative man is entirely self-sufficient and, whatever benefits to mankind his discoveries and inventions bestow, it is always for his own satisfaction that he works. Anyone who deviates from this standard and looks for satisfaction in others, whether by helping or exploiting them, is a “second-hander.” Invariably, unable to create anything for themselves, they drag the creative class down to their mediocrity, by way of, naturally, making stupid additions to architectural designs and the like. Thus the traditional understanding of egotism is, to coin a phrase, false consciousness:
The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander. This is the basic issue. It rests upon the alternative of life or death. The code of the creator is built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive. The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil. 
The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner...
There’s a chimp’s feast of nits one could pick from a screed of such length. To take but one example, its mangling of Greek mythology: Prometheus was chained up and tormented by the gods for stealing their fire in order to help mankind. He was, in fact, the prototypical second-hander. There’s also the absurdity of any philosophy that considers “the beggar, the social worker, and the bandit” as well as dictators to be moral equals. But in fact the whole logical edifice can be demolished like a bad housing project by referring back to Rand’s fundamental absolutist misunderstanding of traditional, altruistic morality:
Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above himself…. 
Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then one must wish to see others suffer--in order that he may be virtuous.
Rand critically mistakes altruism, the consideration of others’ welfare over one’s own, as an imperative, an ironclad and all-consuming law, rather than a gentle corrective to man’s tendency toward self-enrichment which often comes at the expense of others. It’s the confusion, once again, of ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ Part of the altruistic ideal is the understanding that in the world as it is, there will always be suffering, vice, and folly, and so it is necessary to ameliorate it as best as possible. To accuse altruists of thinking there ought to be suffering, because it gives them a purpose, is like accusing doctors of enjoying the sickness of their patients. Roark's logic that “but for me the destitute could not have had this particular home,” suggests that a doctor would be justified in withdrawing a treatment at his own discretion, prior oaths and agreements be damned. 

Rand’s misunderstanding comes into the sharpest relief when one examines an earlier and similarly long-winded speech by villain Ellsworth Toohey, delivered after Peter Keating has surrendered to him the written agreement he had made with Roark about the housing development, as well as what little remained of his dignity. In what amounts to a philosophical version of the scene in Men in Black when Vincent d’Onofrio rips off his skin to reveal a giant cockroach underneath, Toohey is shown to be not merely a gross liberal intellectual caricature, but a veritable secular Satan:
“...I said I intended to rule. Like all my spiritual predecessors. But I’m luckier than they were. I inherited the fruit of their efforts and I shall be the one who’ll see the great dream made real. I see it all around me today. I recognize it. I don’t like it. I didn’t expect to like it. Enjoyment is not my destiny. I shall find such satisfaction as my capacity permits. I shall rule. ”  
“You. The world. It’s only a matter of discovering the lever. If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind....” 
It’s hard to describe the effect of five pages of this. The scene, such as it is, plays a similar narrative function as O’Brien’s breaking of Winston Smith in 1984. But Toohey is constructed as less a human being than a symbol, the exact, demonic opposite of Roark in every way, so his anti-creed recalls the inverted morality of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape, without the wit:
Here’s another [way to break a man’s soul]. Kill man’s sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. Laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You’ve destroyed architecture. Build up Lois Cook and you’ve destroyed literature. Hail Ike and you’ve destroyed the theater. Glorify Lancelot Clokey and you’ve destroyed the press. Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed.
Toohey is constructed such that, with a little adjustment of pronouns, most of what he says could just as easily be uttered by one of Rand’s heroic individualists. The only difference is he thinks these things are good rather than evil:
Yet the test should be so simple: just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice—run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. The man intends to be the master....
....I want nothing for myself. I use people only for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. I have no private purpose. I want power. I want my world of the future. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There’s equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery—without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to salvery. A great circle—and a total equality. The world of the future.”
In her introduction to The Fountainhead Rand wrote that her “man-worship” should not be confused for the secular religions, like Communism and Fascism, that substituted God with “the people” or “the master race” or some other nebulous collective. Yet she has in fact done just that. The heroes and villains of her cosmology are just two ends of an hourglass that share the selfsame sand.

In actual philosophical differences in the world, the opposing sides can’t even agree on the terms of debate. This is the case with the hostility between Rand-inspired conservatives and liberals. The one side sees the other as celebrating misery, while the liberal perspective has the exact opposite issue. It’s not that Rand wants the suffering that results, if unintendedly, from her idealized selfishness, it’s that such accidents are categorically excluded from her worldview. One side considers circumstances in how people are shaped, and attempts to mitigate its effect. The other considers one’s fortunes to be entirely self-determined and accordingly views any attempts to make things easier as, if anything, part of the problem.

They’re fundamentally irreconcilable views, which is why the past three years in Congress have been such an arduous slog. As we’ll see next they're also, because this difference was so fundamental to Rand’s character, the reason The Fountainhead and Rand’s ouvre as a whole is so utterly alien to most other fiction.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ayn Rand: Love Means 'No' Means 'Yes'

A female fan once asked Ayn Rand if the "wonderful" love scenes between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon were based on life experience. Rand's response would seem a rare instance of humor on her part: "Wishful thinking." It's a useful summary of her fiction more generally, "the world not as it is, but as it ought to be," but a look at just what these love scenes entail, however, reveals an ideal appalling, amusing, and at least a little pitiable.

Dominique Francon, columnist for the New York Banner and daughter of Peter Keating's boss, Guy Francon, is The Fountainhead's love interest and also its most baffling creation. Rand wrote the character as “myself on a bad day,” which is to say cold, spiteful, possessive, catty; when Dominique's editor tells her that he didn't think she was "just an irresponsible bitch," she replies, "You were wrong." Given that nearly everything she says to almost everyone is contemptuously insincere, this is, one supposes, supposed to be ironic, which--ironically?--is even bitchier.

She's supposed to be something of a cynic, a romantic so despondent of the world's underserving of the great and the beautiful, that she will destroy beauty--for its own sake.
“You know, I love statues of naked men. Don’t look so silly. I said statues. I had one in particular. It was supposed to be Helios. I got it out of a museum in Europe. I had a terrible time getting it—it wasn’t for sale, of course. I think I was in love with it, Alvah. I brought it home with me.”

“Where is it? I’d like to see something you like, for a change.”

“It’s broken.”

“Broken? A museum piece? How did that happen?”

“I broke it.”


“I threw it down the air shaft. There’s a concrete floor below.”

“Are you totally crazy? Why?”

“So that no one else would ever see it.”
This approach, obnoxiously contrarian and attention-hoarding, continues through her relationship with Roark, her highest ideal made manifest, so that their nearly every reaction is marked by hostility and violence.

It's love at first slight:
She stood very still, because her first perception was not of sight, but of touch: the consciousness, not of a visual presence, but of a slap in the face.

...She was thinking of those statues of men she had always sought; she was wondering what he would look like naked. She saw him looking at her as if he knew that. She thought she had found an aim in life--a sudden, sweeping hatred for that man.
The extension of contempt and hatred beyond one's inferiors to encompass one's mate is consummated in the infamous “rape scene,” in which Roark lets himself into Dominique's bedroom, and has his way with her. There's rough material to follow in the rest of the pose, so sensitive readers should consider this a TRIGGER WARNING:
She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists, pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades. She twisted her head back. She felt his lips on her breast. She tore herself free...
...It was an act that could be performed in tenderness, as a seal of love, or in contempt, as a symbol of humiliation and conquest. It could be the act of a lover or the act of a soldier violating an enemy woman. He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement. And this made her lie still and submit. One gesture of tenderness from him—and she would have remained cold, untouched by the thing done to her body. But the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted....
There was some outcry about this scene when The Fountainhead was first published, that the novel's hero is basically raping a woman. Rand disputed this, saying that “if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” Dominique wanted it.

This is true so far as it goes. Dominique and Roark are generally oblivious and aloof to other people, while their attraction to each other is studded with words like “contempt” and “cruelty.” The rape is preceded by a scene in which Dominique, on horseback, whips Roark across the face with a tree branch in response to an insolent remark. Their subsequent relationship is a succession of sexual encounters between which Dominique does everything in her professional powers to destroy Roark, which she does for the same reason she destroys Greek statues and marries human waste like Peter Keating: because the only right response to a world that corrupts and squanders greatness is deliberate, sado-masochistic destruction.

Thus aggression is not incidental to Rand's view of sex, but rather necessary and intrinsic:
When they lay in bed together it was--as it had to be, as the nature of the act demanded--an act of violence. It was surrender, made the more complete by the force of their resistance. It was an act of tension, as the great things on earth are things of tension....It was an act of clenched teeth and hatred, it was the unendurable, the agony, an act of passion--the word born to mean suffering--it was the moment made of hatred, tension, pain--the moment that broke its own elements, inverted them, triumphed, swept into a denial of all suffering, into its antithesis, into ecstasy.
The most charitable reading of this possible--and since I am not a Randian, I will be charitable--is that love, like any other act of will, can be glorious and triumphant only by conquering the most ferocious struggle and resistance ("passion--that word born to mean suffering"). As put towards the end of the novel, when Dominique finally and fully submits herself to Roark, "she could not have reached this white serenity except as the sum of all the colors, of all the violence she had known." In the meantime, the hatefuck is a consummation of Roark and Dominique's negging each other on.

So it’s a rape, Dominique even calls it that, but it's still not rape rape, which makes it a lot worse, because this is supposed to be an idealized love, where "man was the life force and woman could respond to nothing else."

This notion of sex as conquest, the inferiority of women--Rand thought the idea of a woman president was an absurdity--it all would be incredibly off-putting, offensive, and so forth, and it is, but Rand's commitment to the juxtaposition of affection and affliction, much like her ideas more generally, is so complete and over-the-top that after a time it stops being offensive and starts provoking giggles:
She came in and found a copy of the Banner spread out on his table, open at the page bearing “Your House” by Dominique Francon. Her column contained the line: “Howard Roark is the Marquis de Sade of architecture. He’s in love with his buildings--and look at them.” She knew that he disliked the Banner, that he put it there only for her sake, that he watched her noticing it, with the half-smile she dreaded on his face. She was angry; she wanted him to read everything she wrote, yet she would have preferred to think it hurt him enough to make him avoid it. Later, lying across the bed, with his mouth on her breast, she looked past the orange tangle of his head, at that sheet of newspaper on the table, and he felt her trembling with pleasure.
A reader would be hard-pressed to imagine a woman looking at a bloody newspaper and getting a rush by how much it pisses off the man currently suckling her dug without, pardon the phrase, getting all atitter.

More than anything, however, Rand's ideas on love become rather sad, when seen in the light of her own love life. Short, somewhat frumpy, and with "a stare that could wilt a cactus," she was not a sculpted beauty, unlike the characters of her fiction. Her first girlhood crushes were on, typically, impossible heroic figures: a French adventure serial hero, Cyrus, and--I'm not making this up--Enjolras, the leader of the Paris student rebellion in Les Miserables. Her first real love was a fellow St. Petersburg student, Lev Bekkerman, who pointedly ignored and avoided her after a few dates.

Her husband Frank O'Connor looked the part of hero, but he was overwhelmed by Rand's domineering personality and his acting career had, by the time of The Fountainhead's creation, petered out completely. Though she depended on him as an emotional outlet, the tension in their pairing created a friction that doubtless contributed to her eventual seduction of an acolyte twenty-five years her junior. Her ideal of love as vicious struggle, like much else in her worldview, may well have been a conflation of 'is' and 'ought' born of a lifetime of disappointment. "Wishful thinking," indeed.