The monster's ball

By Gene Miller, October 2012

Influenced by the adolescent fantasies of Ayn Rand, the extreme right wing rejects any form of collectivism as evil socialism.

My friend Denton (remember his Blue Bridge “rocket launcher” on the back cover of Focus, months ago?) handled the Blessed Event so right-mindedly that I thought it would be worth memorializing. 

Receiving his first post-65 government pension cheque, he took it upon himself to find some local social-serving non-profit organization with whom he could volunteer. He was explicit about this: a national culture able to do such a good job of looking after its citizens by providing a reasonable pension deserved his continuing services as a show of appreciation and as a way of keeping the account in balance. What a nice view of the human community! What an unerring expression of the relationship between the individual and the collective! 

Remember: it takes a village to raise an individual. 

His actions rang a deep note because, with the US presidential election looming, I can’t turn away from the train wreck that currently defines US politics and social ideology. It feels now as if the entire national identity is in play. I’m transfixed—okay, horrified—by the messaging and symbol-play of the Republican leadership and by the factional voices who, after Obama’s election in 2008, made a sharp right turn at “weird” and just kept going. I’m concerned that Canadian conservatives—notably, the crowd from the province next door that has turned nature’s accidental oil bounty into a belief system—may see the coalescing US idiotocracy as validation of their vision and a green light for their positions. 

I’m specifically twitchy learning that Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul (“Lying Bastard”) Ryan’s political contours have been shaped in part by the ideas and values of Ayn Rand, novelist and political philosopher, who placed iconoclastic individualism on a pedestal and considered everyone else to be vermin. 

This is a woman who smoked two packs a day, disbelieved the medical alarmists (their warnings might lead to government regulation) and died of lung cancer. She showed them. 

Rand would be just a sad footnote in the human comedy, except this nut job has exerted a significant influence over Ryan, and personifies the mentality of too many right-drifting conservatives: Un-fetter the Atlases of commerce so their visions of progress and bounty may come true! Shrink government! Obliterate obstructive regulation and let the free market perform its miracles! Sanctify the individual; reject the collective! Free the “doers,” punish the “moochers.” 

Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum, a Jew, in 1905 in St Petersburg, Russia. Everything you want to understand about her virulent anti-collectivism is to be understood from her experience of the horrific early years of the Russian Revolution in 1917. She brought her hatreds with her to the States and headed for Hollywood—the dream-factory home of true love, perfect endings, Munchkins and Gort, the robot.

Rand elevated her political philosophy, dubbed Objectivism, to its fictional apotheosis in a couple of novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—essentially, a pair of masturbation fantasies for late-blooming conservatives; which is to say, a cohort heavily involved in adequacy issues. I read both potboilers as a teenager (The Fountainhead to this day is on my shelf, wedged between a now-spineless Alice in Wonderland and some well-thumbed Kurt Vonnegut titles) and I recall them as adventure stories. I carry the memory of jutting breasts, thrilling sex and destiny-eyed male leaders who declaimed heroic, stone-chiselled speeches (often for page after endless page) and who, presumably, never said anything real-world like “Pass the potatoes, please,” or waited in a lineup, or experienced any of the other afflictions we “lice” and “looters” are prone to.

Sam Anderson wrote in New York Magazine: “Rand built a glorious imaginary empire...then devoted every ounce of her will and intelligence to proving it was all pure reason.”

Not that building glorious imaginary empires is anything out of the ordinary for the hard-breathing right-wing sociopaths at the Washington, DC-based Cato Institute, or the vast network of faith-based literalists who think Christ and the triceratops shared a young Earth and that God is America’s cheerleader, or the Canadian whack-job moon-bayers at the Fraser Institute or the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. If anything, the toxic franchise of these right-wing institutions and organizations is being energized by the Tea Party and Christian values updraft in the US, and by a worrying tolerance of that natural-born punisher, Stephen Harper, here in Canada. To either side of the border you can’t miss the “it’s our time,” triumphalist notes from people who clearly believe they are winning a holy war.

Commenting on Ryan and Republicans (and, collaterally, Ayn Rand), comic Bill Maher accurately noted: “Republicans...believe in something that both science and history have shown to be pure fantasy. The symbol for their party shouldn’t be an elephant—it should be a unicorn. [Ryan] can just write, ‘I want a pony’ in a binder and call it the ‘Plan For Restoring Vision For The Future Of America’s Greatness’ or some shit, and then everyone has to refer to him as the serious one in Congress.”

The irony would be laughable if it weren’t so painful: Rand has recrudesced in our own times as some fresh grotesque from the bottom of the well of nightmares. Recent history has provided the “perfect storm” of conditions and values, and now it’s a monster’s ball out there of blamers, fat-assed, tattooed Walmart Republicans, wacko values-voters, angry, flag-waving true believers, Freedom or Bust libertarians, nostalgia types who think they lost something and want it back. Quick to brand any and every government program socialism, creeping or otherwise, the right wing is conveniently tone deaf to the fact that the only “redistribution of wealth” recently has been in favour of the wealthy. But somehow, it’s government’s fault when criminal adventure by the banking and financial industry brings the entire economy to its knees. 

If you shine daylight on the veiled moral architecture of the right wing, you find a working kit of parts for a galloping kleptocracy. And this goes straight to the heart of the issue: in essence, the right very cleverly three-card-monte’s the idea of government as the inhibitor of social freedoms, actually as a surrogate for its real opposition to government as a regulator and, honestly, the last and only force standing in the way of all-out financial rape.

Matt Taibbi’s lengthy piece about that grifter Romney and Bain Capital in the August 29 issue of Rolling Stone is revelatory: “He’s trying for something big,” writes Taibbi. “We’ve just been too slow to sort out what it is, just as we’ve been slow to grasp the roots of the radical economic changes that have swept the country in the last generation.”

Commentators have, in fact, been clear about the “roots of the radical economic changes.” James Kunstler, in his blog, Clusterfuck Nation, mordantly proposed the Reality Party, in an early September posting: “A broad array of financial rackets [has] crippled the basic functions of finance, namely: price discovery, currency as a reliable store of value, and the allocation of surplus wealth for productive purpose.” 

At the roots of this de facto nouvelle class warfare, deep in the murk of the conservative psyche, far beneath mere disapproval or antipathy toward the liberal agenda, there is hyper-fastidious, white lab-coated, vibes-like-an-Aryan’s pathological hatred of people, the mass of them, the human mob—their appetites, their expectations, their perceived lack of structure or discipline, their bug-like “littleness.” In spite of the rhetoric about the rights of the individual, the conservative view believes people don’t have nobility or potential until they’re earning six figures. Instead, they’re germs. Like Agent Smith’s speech in The Matrix: “Human beings are a disease, a cancer. You are a plague. We are the cure.” And in the movie, to whom does he deliver this speech? A black man. 

Guess how Agent Smith votes.

It’s hard to frame your own times in history’s long narrative, but the ecological or civilizational cycle is always the same: tension, spasm, collapse, regeneration. Beyond all the fist-pounding about endless plenty is the reality of limits—ironically, a valid (if entirely abandoned) conserve-ative position. 

Neither political leader will say that, of course, as it’s political suicide and poison to the American psyche. The New Yorker’s George Packer, writing in the aftermath of the Republican Convention, notes: “Ryan will be the Republican Party’s next leader because his style is perfectly suited to its demands: purist, inflexible, combative, and untroubled by any complicating fact.”

Tension, spasm, collapse, regeneration. Fasten your seatbelt.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.