Sunday, December 06, 2009

Cline versus Heller

Back in October Stephen Cox reviewed Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Shortly thereafter, Edward Cline reviewed Cox's review in a blog post entitled "The Oblique Smearing of Ayn Rand." Cline's review is interesting more for what it says (or, rather, reveals) about Cline himself than what it says, or fails to say, about Cox's review. Indeed, if there is any smearning going on, it is on the part of Cline himself. "[Cox's] review, 'Ayn’s World,' can be taken as the apotheosis of all libertarian reviews," insists Cline, "because it is long, commits the same offenses, and is as thorough a job of 'debunking' Rand short of a Whittaker Chambers/William F. Buckley Jr. effort."

To any normal person who has read both Chamber's review of Atlas Shrugged and Cox's review Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Cline's comparison is absurd. Unlike Chamber's, Cox is clearly an admirer of Rand's ideas. He's effusive in his praise: Atlas Shrugged, Cox avers, "projected a nation, an America, in which the government intervenes in the economy and, yes, wrecks it, in ways more picturesque than any economist could possibly have imagined." Rand created "an intense and serious world, a world full of ideas and characters and exciting action." "There can be no question about the fact that Rand remains America’s ... most influential novelist of ideas." "Heller pronounces Rand 'prophetic' and 'revolutionary,' as indeed she was." "The Rand who emerges from Heller’s pages was a brilliant thinker and writer who exercised remarkable power over the world of her texts and the world of her life." "Rand had enormous personal and literary courage." "If anyone ever deserved to succeed, it was Ayn Rand, who was thinking seriously, all the time, both about ideas and about the literary forms in which they ought to be embodied, and who risked her all to write what she thought was good to write." "One of the many unacknowledged facts about Rand is that she was one of American literature’s greatest satirists."

Cline does not deny that Cox praises Rand, he merely explains the praise away: it's "praise so qualified that it ceases to be praise at all," he tells us. In other words, you're not allowed to admire Rand the thinker while deploring some aspects of Rand as a human being. It's as if Cline is suggesting that if you truly admire Rand's ideas, you would have unqualified, unconditional admiration for Rand's character as well.

Perhaps more disturbing is Cline's intellectual dishonesty and lack of fair play. He is ever so sensitive to criticism of Rand, but shows not the least sensitivity, or even justice, when dishing out criticism to Cox. Cline accuses Cox "of using Heller’s biography as a vehicle to not-so-subtly slander Rand." That's a pretty serious charge. Cline is basically accusing Cox of lying about Rand in order to disparage or denigrate the author of Atlas Shrugged. You would think Cline would be eager to back his accussation up with hard facts. But hard facts are precisely what are missing in his review. What we get are a series of assertions and distortions and malicious misinterpretations of Cox's text. For example, at one point, he claims that Cox "wished" Rand "had taken Albert Jay Nock, that wistful, ineffectual individualist of the 1930’s, more seriously." This, however, is a complete distortion of what Cox did in fact say:

I would like to believe, as Heller does, that Rand was inspired by Nock’s essay “Isaiah’s Job.” There, Nock pictures literary prophets ministering to the needs of a “remnant” of right-thinking people who may at some time have the opportunity to rebuild their civilization. As Heller says, it sounds like the situation in “Atlas Shrugged,” and I want to agree with her, because “Isaiah’s Job” is one of the finest essays ever written by an American. I like to picture Rand reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t think she needed Nock for the storyline of “Atlas.” Anyone who devotes her life to conveying unpopular ideas is apt to feel as Nock and Rand did — alone and without influence except on a few currently anonymous other people, a small “remnant” of civilization. That doesn’t mean that Nock influenced Rand. I acknowledge that Rand uses the word “remnant” in John Galt’s big speech in “Atlas Shrugged,” so Heller may be correct — though considering the unfavorable things Rand said about Nock’s failure to help her get the individualist movement off the ground, I can’t see her intending to write an homage to him in “Atlas.”

How Cline reads into this passage "Cox wishes Rand had taken Nock more seriously," I have no idea. Nock use to complain of people who were literate but who didn't know how to read. One wonders if Cline wouldn't, in some degree, fit Nock's description.

Besides several paragraphs in which he bitterly complains about Cox labelling Rand as a libertarian and another paragraph griping about Cox's "cheap shots" at Rand (along with an extremely trivial example of a "cheap shot" from Cox's review), Cline announces "I shall skip over other remarks Cox makes about Rand, as they are of the same insouciant tone." Well, that's convenient. But in doing so, he ignores the most damaging part of Cox's review, where Cox discusses Rand's "striking lack of empathy."

“Empathy” is a word that’s hard to define, but most people know what it means. Rand didn’t. She had little spontaneous insight into the beings who surrounded her. To get a fix on them, she needed to view them from an ideological or theoretical remove, as if she were an astronomer and they were distant planets.

Naturally, this problem showed itself most clearly in her relations with the people closest to her. Her letters to Paterson indicate that she hadn’t a clue about the reasoning by which her friend reached different conclusions from her own. No matter how lucidly Paterson explained her thinking, Rand’s way of understanding it was to label it irrational; then it could be dismissed. When her relationship with Nathaniel Branden went on the rocks, she constructed analyses worthy of Sir Isaac Newton to explicate actions and emotions that anyone with empathy would have comprehended in a flash. This, to her, seemed rational, but it was really a fundamental failure of empathy.

Heller’s best example of Rand’s lack of empathy is her conception of Frank O’Connor. Frank was a handsome, lovable, nonintellectual person whom Rand systematically confused with the heroic geniuses of her novels. To say that her expectations of Frank were damaging to him, and to their relationship, is putting it very mildly. Her expectations of other people — people she liked, people she trusted, people she eventually shed — were almost as damaging.

It can hardly be an accident that Cline chooses to ignore Cox's most serious charge. Far better to simply call it "slander" or "a cheap shot" or "offensive." After all, if Cline had actually tried to address the issues Cox raises honestly, in the spirit of fairplay and empirical responsibility, what could he have said? Nothing to the purpose. The issues Cox raised in his review are based on the research in Heller's book, which demonstrates, to any disinterested intelligence, that Rand was sadly lacking in the capacity to empathize with others. It is a defect which many of Rand's orthodox followers appear to share.

For many orthodox Objectivists, however, it goes beyond a mere lack of empathy: it could more properly be described as a kind of self-absorption that robs the Randian true believer of the most basic common decency in his relations with non-Objectivists. Hyper-sensitive to even the mildest criticism (even to the point of going out of one's way to find reasons to be offended, even when none exist), the orthodox Objectivist is often reckless in his denunciations of others and irresponsible in his desperate urge to find pretexts for denouncing other people (even those who, like libertarians, believe very similar things and are on the same page, politically). It's proof of the basic irrationality at the core of Objectivist orthodoxy. Objectivists claim they wish to change the world through persuasion; but their self-absorption, their lack of empathy, their inability to show even the most common decency towards those with whom they disagree—all this constitutes a very serious public relations problem which a more empathatic and rational individual would recognize at once and endeavor to correct. If you are trying to convince others that selfishness is a virtue, you don't do yourself any favors by behaving with this degree of malevolence and narcissism.


Neil Parille said...


There is also Ari Armstrong's "review" of the introduction to the Burns book.

As I pointed out to Cline, it's rather brazen to accuse Cox of using Heller's book as a springboard to attack Rand without actually reading the book.

The last thing these people seem interested in are whether they are accurate takes on Rand's life. I guess that's too "concrete bound."

-Neil Parille

Michael Prescott said...

FYI, it seems Rand's influence will be felt on Fox News:

John Stossel says his first show may involve Ayn Rand and how she accurately predicted everything happening today.

Xtra Laj said...

It's often annoying to read/review Objectivist critiques of their opponents - the lack of empathy Objectivists display just makes them insufferable.

entomologist said...

I've thought for a while that some of Rand's essays would actually make sense and reflect reality if, where she says "Man," one were to substitute the word "sociopath." That, of course, is the standard term in psychology for a human with no capacity for empathy; I believe Ayn Rand was one, and that many if not most of her most ardent followers are, as well. Her genius, if it can be called that, was in building her disorder into a philosophy of life.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Cline thoroughly demolished Cox. Having read both hatchet jobs
last fall and taking the time to go on Heller's facebook page to point out some of the many problems with her work, I agree with GN that both the Burns and Heller works by self-described left liberals are worthless. Their only redeeming quality is that they do reference Valliant's thorough demolition of the Brandens
and Heller does cast doubt on Rothbards' tall "cult" tales. The
funny thing is that you two buttbuddies GN & DB have yet to make one valid criticism of either Rand or her philosophy.
As Raico noted will anybody remember any of the Rand critics 30years from now ? LRC is the only entity keeping the Rothbard name alive and pretty soon the Brandens will be no more. And several people have posted comprehensive rebuttals to the specific criticisms of Rand here, is really worthwhile to waste time responding to lonely losers on a site ready by VERY few people ?
The question answers itself. Like
Randzapper you are zapping yourselves and spinning your wheels. BTW, Amazon did refund my $
for both books and will do so minus
the small shipping fee for all readers. Happy New Year to the TOP
GN and the BOTTOM DB.