Ayn Rand was a mean girl in person and in politics America’s ideological mean girl, I wrote recently. In my weekly column for Aleteia, I quoted as evidence two of her comments on abortion and pointed out that they were both stupid and evil.
The Randians grumbled, or snarled, that the criticism was ad hominem, a term they apparently didn’t understand. I wasn’t arguing that her ideas were bad because she was an awful person, but that her ideas were bad and she was an awful person, and reflecting on what that meant for the way Christians related to her and her ideas. Even some Christian readers instructed me to respond to her ideas and have an “intelligent conversation.”
That wasn’t the point of the article, but it raises a neglected question about our encounter with ideologies like Randianism. Like all of liberalism’s claims to neutrality, it smuggles in an ideological assertion. In this case, the appeal to the liberal ideal asserts that Randianism is a respectable, plausible, and creditable idea, one that has a legitimate place in the wide discussion of the human good. It should be respected, not dismissed. Its claims should be debated, not rejected out of hand.
I’m speaking here of Randianism as a public ideology. The individual trapped in that ideology is a different matter. Even while rejecting Randianism, you don’t reject the Randian, though your pastoral engagement with him (it will almost always be a him) must recognize the peculiar character of his ideas and the moral choices one has to make to accept them. You may need to speak prophetically rather than affirmingly, reading that poor boy the riot act, as my grandfather used to say.
No one believes as an absolute principle that every view deserves public respect. The American ideal holds that all views deserve a hearing and argument, but societies rightly impose moral limits to the views to which this applies. We do not treat anti-Semitism, terrorist apologias, eugenicism, white supremacism, ideological misogyny, radical Islamism, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazism, pedophilia, and North Korean-style communism as respectable ideas with a legitimate place in the discussion of the human good.
No major newspaper or network will run a debate titled “Do the Jews secretly control the world?: Two Views” or a show advocating the legal imposition of the burkha. No major studio will produce a movie romanticizing the life of slaves on the plantation. Just yesterday Mediaite reported that Amazon pulled ISIS’ magazine Dabiq and no one has objected.
The question is on what side is Randianism. Is it an ideology in the same swamp as anti-Semitism and all the rest or is it one of those ideas one can respect while rejecting sharply, like (depending on one’s own beliefs) libertarianism or socialism? Most people who run into it act as if it were the second. They don’t seem even to conceive that it might not be. It’s one of those things you run into and must be kind of okay. A disturbing number of Catholics find something in Rand’s ideas and writing attractive.
I think it’s the first. This is true, at least, for Catholics, who recognize the good, the law written on our hearts, and believe others can and should recognize it as well. Randianism’s view of the individual and all that flows from it, not least its social Darwinist hatred for the weak and the poor, is deeply, fundamentally inhumane. It is a settled dogma set against basic and public truths of human life. It is not mistaken about human dignity and human flourishing, it rejects them. The Randian is the man who brings dynamite to the barn-raising.
In practice this means two things. First, one should never speak or write as if Randianism were a respectable and creditable idea. It should always be spoken of in the way one speaks of white supremacism or Holocaust denial. Do not ask its critics to take it seriously and enter into a dialogue as if it were one side of an exchange that leads both sides dialectically into a deeper truth than each sees on its own.
Second, it should not be given a place at the table, on the fortunately rare occasions when that might be considered. If you’re organizing a panel on Catholic Social Teaching, you might invite a libertarian and a socialist and everyone in between, but not a Randian. The Randian is to a discussion of Catholic social teaching as the anti-Semite is to a discussion of Nostra Aetete. (In any case, whatever of value a Randian might say will be said as well, and probably more humanely, by a libertarian.)
Curiously, maybe, William F. Buckley came to a similar conclusion way back in the mid-fifties when he published Whitaker Chambers’ take down of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, "Big Sister is Watching You." The review effectively read Rand and Randianism out of the conservative movement—which purge proved to be one of the conditions of its later success. A similar refusal to legitimize Randianism will only help in the work of creating a society that advances human freedom and dignity. One part of that work is making clear where its enemies are found.