Amoralists Like Us

Avi Woolf writes a thoughtful critical review of The Smallest Minority, for which I am grateful. He sees the book in a way that it was not intended — as an attack on the idea of community:

For him, the mob is not just the state or angry Twitter users; it is human society and community as such, in any form other than ad hoc alliances of individuals. There is no form of human community, religious or secular, on which he does not pour his complete scorn. The few comments in favor of them are drowned out by a flood of misanthropic bile in the other direction. The conservative movement and even many liberals decried the cratering of human association documented by Robert Putnam; I’ve the feeling Williamson would be elated if it would be entirely completed.

Part of my argument is that people turn to the social-media-driven phenomenon of mob politics as a substitute for the civil society and other associations Woolf references here. What we call for lack of a better word “globalization” has made us wealthier and better off on most measurable material criteria, but it also has introduced sources of stress and anxiety: We move much more often than we used to (the “we” in these sentences is complicated, I know; you know who you are), change employers more frequently than our parents or grandparents did, put off marriage and children, etc. As a consequence, the community ties and familial relationships that once helped to sustain us and fix us are, for many of us, attenuated. In that situation, people go looking for new sources of meaning and relationship, and many of them have settled, stupidly, on the basest and silliest form of partisan-tribal politics. Twitter is less work than joining a bowling league. In that sense, the argument I make is the opposite of the one Woolf hears. I would very much prefer people to live happier lives based on genuine human connections

As for the scorn, I wish I could say that the targets of it — church and party, among others — did not deserve it.

And, since nobody ever gets tired of talking about Ayn Rand, Woolf writes:

He claims he detests Ayn Rand and he used her own title “because she doesn’t deserve it”; I see precious little distance between her amoral and anti-social view of human relations and his own socially averse and still transactional one.

That is a perfect misreading of Rand, whose approach was the dead opposite of amoral: She was a great moralist, to the point of being insufferable. Rand’s comprehensive moralism is in fact what warps and distorts her fiction, e.g. the train tunnel scene in Atlas Shrugged. As I wrote in my comparison of Rand and John Steinbeck:

It is not enough for Rand that death visit the express train: It has to be a righteous death, the black angel of reason coming down like a ton of non-metaphysical bricks. It’s not just that A=A, but that A has it coming. She chronicles her victims’ transgressions at typically Randian length: One is a sociology professor who rejected the importance of individual ability, another a journalist who favored government compulsion in the name of “good intentions,” a third a publisher who believed men to be “unfit for freedom,” another a schoolteacher who crushed her students’ individualism, etc. And then the real bad guys: a profiteer who used government favors to make a fortune in frozen railway bonds, a businessman who relied on government support to acquire a profitable ore mine, etc.

“These passengers,” she writes, “were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt’s Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.”

This passage frequently is cited as evidence of Rand’s fundamental inhumanity, but it is in fact the best evidence of her fundamental humanity. She is in search of a transcendent principle to govern human life, ensuring not only order in the universe but moral justice — not in the next life, as believers in karma or Judgment Day would have it, but in this life. What she is in search of is God, unless you have another word for a divine force that intervenes in human affairs to enforce justice. The great defect in Rand’s thinking is not her atheism but her mysticism, her naïve belief that there is some inescapable force in the universe acting in accord with the best of human values.

Woolf concludes: “In the end, it’s not that the individual is the only minority that matters; it’s that in Williamson’s world — he’s all that’s left. What a sad, tragic, dark understanding of the world.” Oh, but the view is considerably sunnier here in Texas.

You can find The Smallest Minority here on Amazon, and elsewhere.

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