Wednesday, January 05, 2005

NRO Revisits an Old Low

A Half-Century-Old Attack on Ayn Rand Reminds Us of the Dark Side of Conservatism

by Robert Tracinski

TIA Daily frequently links to articles posted at National Review Online, the online companion to National Review, the prominent conservative magazine. I link to it because NRO publishes works by many good authors with important things to say (e.g., Victor Davis Hanson and Michael Ledeen)—but it's important to recognize that NRO also publishes many bad authors and promotes some truly evil ideas, which I have occasionally criticized in TIA Daily as well.

Today's NRO is worse than usual: in its "flashback" section, which reprints articles from old issues of National Review, its editors chose to revisit the magazine's lowest low point: Whittaker Chambers's vicious 1957 pseudo-review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I actually recommend reading this article, because the review condemns itself, and the fact that it was published in the first place—and that NRO would feel no apparent shame in recalling it to readers' attention—says a great deal about the intellectual state of conservatism.

I call this a "pseudo-review" because Chambers chose to say very little about Ayn Rand's novel—its characters, its plot, its theme, the many profound ideas that it discusses and dramatizes. He reveals in practically every paragraph how little attention he paid to what Ayn Rand actually wrote. He misspells the names of two major characters (Francisco D'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold); he asserts that every character "is either all good or all bad," ignoring several prominent characters of what Ayn Rand called "mixed premises" (e.g., Robert Stadler, Fred Kinnan, and the young bureaucrat nicknamed "the Wet Nurse"); he describes Ayn Rand as an advocate of "aristocracy" and of "philosophical materialism"; and the only quotations he cites to illustrate her philosophy are not from the novel itself—where there is no lack of philosophical discussion—but are lifted from the brief biographical postscript printed after the final page of the story.

All of this unmistakably suggests that Chambers did not even read Atlas Shrugged, that he is merely issuing a report on the results of a hurried attempt at skimming.

So what is the article about, if it is not really about Ayn Rand or Atlas Shrugged? Chambers uses Ayn Rand merely as a springboard for a rambling invective against the atheistic belief in the natural world (which he condemns as "materialism"); against certainty in epistemology (which he calls "arrogance"); against "black and white" judgment in morality (which he objects to as "inflexibly self-righteous"); against idealism in politics; and against stylization in literature (which he caricatures as "caricature").

The theme of the article, expressed in a pompously over-intellectual style, is anti-intellectualism. Chambers echoes the old subjectivist canard that too much rational certainty is what leads to dictatorship. Never mind that the common element of both of the twentieth century's great totalitarian movements—the racial determinism of the fascists and the "dialectical materialism" of the communists—was a thorough attack on the efficacy of the individual mind. As for the great totalitarian threat today, Osama bin Laden and his followers stand for religious dogmatism of the most primitive sort—the very opposite of a devotion to rationality.

Yet it is precisely a religious philosophy that Chambers is trying to prop up by knocking down Ayn Rand. His deepest complaint: "Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world." Chambers, like today's religious conservatives, presumably preferred a "God-centered" society—which some of NRO's authors are all too glad to enforce at the point of a gun.

This is a reminder that when it comes to a conflict between religion and the greatest philosophical (and literary) defender of liberty in the past century, the conservatives have chosen—and are continuing to choose—religion. It is reminder that conservative intellectuals like Whittaker Chambers—and those at today's NRO who agree with him—are ultimately the enemies of liberty.