Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where John Oliver gets Ayn Rand Wrong and Right

A few days ago, John Oliver from HBO's “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” presented a three-and-a-half-minute long segment entitled “Ayn Rand – How is she still a thing?”

To those unaware, I have considered myself a student of Objectivism and have been studying the philosophy for many years. So, when I watched the segment and saw that it was full of the same kinds of ridiculous attacks against Rand that have been around for decades, I simply rolled my eyes and went about the rest of my day. However, I also had the sense that it was only a matter of time before the video would soon spread all over the Internet.

I was right.

There are people who claim that “Last Week Tonight” is a comedy show and that it is meant for a laugh and not to be taken seriously. However, the problem is that people DO take these comedy shows seriously. I have seen a lot of articles that said that Jon Stewart, John Oliver's previous boss, was one of the most trusted names in news (see here and here). And now similar things are being said of John Oliver as well.


Whether that means that people trust comedians a lot, or they just distrust other news shows a lot is a different question. However, the fact of the matter is that comedian pundits have become one of the most seriously-treated modern-day arbiters of “knowledge.” I find it quite disheartening.

Seeing how John Oliver is a well-known and beloved comedian with his own TV show on HBO and I am but a small-time blogger, it is very unlikely that this (admittedly) lengthy post that details where John Oliver went wrong with his criticisms of Ayn Rand will get nearly as much publicity as his three-minute video.

But, well, I have time on my hands today and this is a topic that I am passionate about. So these are the things that John Oliver got wrong about Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

1. “Ayn Rand became famous for her philosophy of Objectivism, which is a nice way of saying being a selfish asshole.”

The people who made this video are either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting Ayn Rand from the get-go. Yes, the word “selfishness” is very much associated with Ayn Rand. But what did she mean by “selfishness?” Did she mean it the way the makers of this video did by comparing it with Drake's song when he said, “It's all about me, don't give a fuck about you,” or when that woman said “I will fucking kill you?”

No, certainly not. To find out what she meant by “selfishness,” check this link here.

One of these things is not like the others

2. Ayn Rand's quote taken out of context – “Why is it good to want others to be happy? You can make others happy when and if those others mean something to you selfishly.”

This was the part of the video that probably got a lot of people thinking that Ayn Rand's selfishness was, indeed, about “It's all about me, don't give a fuck about you.”

But you have to take the interview into context. The clip was taken from an interview that she gave to Tom Snyder and you can find the entire 30-minute video here. The philosophical topics being discussed prior to her talking about the happiness of oneself and the happiness of others were about sacrifice, altruism, and Immanuel Kant.

Can you imagine modern-day talk shows talking about such heady subjects?  It would be the fastest way to get canceled!

Now listen to the whole segment of what she said about the topic of happiness in that lecture, instead of the five second clip that those comedians cherry-picked. The segment is from 21:32 to 24:22. It is hardly a case of “It's all about me, don't give a fuck about you.”

3. “Stories of rapey heroes complaining about how nobody appreciates their true genius.” (Part 1)

That snide comment about “rapey heroes” was taken from “The Fountainhead,” when the main character, Howard Roark, supposedly “rapes” the female heroine, Dominique Francon. Thus began the myth that Rand was somehow pro-rape.

I don't have a link to what Rand said about the rape scene so I will copy/paste from the book “Letters of Ayn Rand.”

But the fact is that Roark did not actually rape Dominique; she had asked for it, and he knew that she wanted it. A man who would force himself on a woman against her wishes would be committing a dreadful crime. What Dominique liked about Roark was the fact that he took the responsibility for their romance and for his own actions. Most men nowadays, like Peter Keating, expect to seduce a woman, or rather they let her seduce them and thus shift the responsibility to her. That is what a truly feminine woman would despise. The lesson in the Roark-Dominique romance is one of spiritual strength and self-confidence, not of physical violence.

“It was not an actual rape, but a symbolic action which Dominique all but invited. This was the action she wanted and Howard Roark knew it.”

Now was it unfortunate that she used the word “rape?” It certainly was. The word has some strong meaning behind it and it has gotten much stronger since Ayn Rand used it.

Now there is certainly an interesting factoid about Rand that Professor Jennifer Burns mentioned in her book “Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Free Market.” When “The Fountainhead” had been just published, one of the reasons for the book's success was the torrid love scenes, which some could consider as an early form of BDSM-literature. During a book signing, when a member of the audience asked Rand whether the sex scenes were based on her own sexual experiences, she supposedly uncharacteristically playfully said something along the lines of it merely being her fantasy.

Now, I am a Redditor. And while browsing Reddit over the years, I have come across on numerous occasions when people have made confessions of their BDSM and rape fantasies. The stories were all the same – they were confused, they knew rape to be immoral and illegal, they felt guilty, and they didn't know what to do. Many commenters, however, did not reproach them. In fact, many commenters said that such fantasies were not all that bizarre and that there is a community that engages in “rape fantasies,” all practiced with mutual consent – that the healthy thing to do is to talk openly about it with compassionate people who will not label them as freaks for being different.

People can be very understanding. Until Ayn Rand's name is mentioned. Then she just becomes “rapey.” Seeing how so many people tend to project their life experiences onto out-of-context quotes or misquotes of Ayn Rand, she really is a Rorschach test.

Did you know that this character can also be traced back to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism?

4. “Stories of rapey heroes complaining about how nobody appreciates their true genius.” (Part 2)

Ayn Rand's four major works of fiction were “The Fountainhead,” “Atlas Shrugged,” “We the Living,” and “Anthem.” I have read them all and not once have I ever come across any of her heroes complaining that nobody appreciated their true genius. In fact, not caring about the opinions of others is one of their central characteristics.

Case in point, this is a clip from the movie adaptation of The Fountainhead,” which the original clip mocked, that shows Howard Roark having a short conversation with the story's main villain, Ellsworth Toohey.

5. The clip that compares Howard Roark's selfishness to the “selfishness” of spoiled children in “Super Sweet Sixteen.”

The following is what Ayn Rand said about pride.

Obviously, those sixteen-year-old children most likely do not possess the pride that Ayn Rand talked about.

So comparing the selfishness, the pride, and the self-esteem that Ayn Rand advocated to that of spoiled children is simply yet another example of intellectual laziness.


6. “Ayn Rand has always been popular with teenagers but she's something you're supposed to grow out of like Ska music or handjobs.”

Firstly, this one sentence contains several logical fallacies and it will take more time than it has already taken to tackle each one of them.

Secondly, I prefer not to respond to insults.

7. “Mark Cuban's favorite book is about a misunderstood visionary who blows things up when he doesn't get his way.”

Please, allow me to set up a hypothetical scenario for you. Let's say you are a photographer who wishes to make it big. And let's say that a bona fide expert said that he likes your photos; that there is real potential for getting them published in a fancy magazine or to open your very own gallery in Gangnam. However, there are conditions.

In order to get more Koreans to like and want to buy your photos, you have to take more pictures of white people eating kimchi while giving a thumbs up. And preferably this will all take place on Dokdo while they are stomping on a Japanese flag. He then assures you that those pictures will be a big hit and that you will earn a generous sum of money for them as well as a glowing review in all the major newspapers in the country.

Would you take such a picture for that kind of prestige or honor or money? Or would you refuse and continue to take photographs the way you like?


Ayn Rand's point was not simply about throwing tantrums if you don't get your way.  Claiming that “The Fountainhead” was a story about an architect and his profession is analogous to claiming that “Animal Farm” was about farm animals.

Assuming that the judgments and decisions that you have made were reached via an intelligent and rational thought process, it was about staying true to your principles; about not giving an inch to those who are mediocre.

8. “Cuban even named his 287-foot yacht “Fountainhead,” because sometimes, having a 287-foot yacht just isn't enough to warn people you're a douchebag.”

Why is owning that big of a yacht a sign of being a douchebag? Now, personally, I have never heard of Mark Cuban before. I don't know him or anything he has said or done. Maybe he IS a douchebag. I don't know if he is or not.

But why is owning a big yacht a sign of being a douchebag? Did he steal it? I think it would be difficult to steal a boat that big and not be questioned by the police, no? Or does being rich automatically make someone a douchebag, no questions asked?

This is what Ayn Rand referred to as Argument from Intimidation.

9. “However, Ayn Rand is an unlikely hero for conservatives.”

The only thing that the video got absolutely right was that she has taken strong positions that conservatives would never agree with, especially in regards to abortion, her atheism, and her opinions of President Ronald Reagan. Conservatives have indeed cherry-picked bits of her ideas that they like while discarding the rest.

The following is what Ayn Rand said about conservatives:

That probably explains why while she was alive, conservatives didn't side with her at all.  Many of them found her views toxic.  Case in point, here is what William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the National Review, had to say about Ayn Rand:

Modern-day conservatives, who have seemingly conveniently forgotten that they used to abhor her, have attempted a type of revisionist history in their selective embrace of Ayn Rand.

By the way, the people who at least initially attempted to side with her by cherry-picking some of her ideas but discarding those that they did not like were the libertarians. For that reason, Ayn Rand HATED libertarians. To her, libertarians were worse than communists. To use an analogy, she probably would have likened communists to barbarians at the gates, and libertarians to sleeper cells within the besieged walls. She thought that by discarding some of her key philosophical views, which she thought were paramount for Objectivism to work, they were undermining the cause of liberty from within.

It's one of those reasons why I find it annoying when Rand-bashers conflate libertarianism with Objectivism and attack both as one and the same thing.

10. “I do not think they (Native Americans) have a right to live in any country merely because they were born here (the United States) and acted and lived like savages.”

This is the big one – hew view about Native Americans. This was something that the people behind “Last Week Tonight” got partly right. She did say it. It was a response that she gave to a question that she received during a Q&A session at the United States Military Academy at Westpoint. This is the full transcript of what she said.

In her book, “Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution,” she spelled out that she rejected primitivism and tribalism, and argued that they are symptoms of an “anti-industrial” mentality. As far as Rand was concerned, a proper civilization was one that respected individual property rights, because the right to property was one of the requirements for man's survival in this world.  Furthermore, she was adamant that a rights-respecting civilization is paramount in order to free Man from men.

However, she argued that Native Americans did not practice private property rights; that they practiced communal “rights” to property, which they used to eke out a subsistence-based life. Therefore, as Native Americans' practices were primitive and did not respect individual rights, the sort of thing that people need in order to live rational, independent lives, she argued that they were savages.

Therefore, she argued that Western colonialists who came to the New World armed with the knowledge of rights, ipso facto, had the right to take the land for their own use.

So, when she used the word “savage,” contrary to what the video insinuated, she did not mean that they were redskinned humanoids. She was using the word as the word actually means – a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.

Regardless of what she meant, however, she was wrong.


Yes, it's true. I, a student of Objectivism, am publicly stating that Ayn Rand was wrong about the subject of Native Americans.

For one thing, history has shown that Native Americans DID have private property rights as can be seen here.

Furthermore, the United States Constitution, which Ayn Rand was (mostly) a big fan of, can trace its roots to, among other things, the Iroquois Confederacy.

For other views about Native Americans and private property rights, I found this page on Reddit to be particularly helpful.

The only thing that Ayn Rand knew about Native Americans was that when they were still powerful enough, they killed scores of European colonialists. However, she never mentioned how Europeans took part in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

Did that mean she was racist? No. Considering what she thought about racism and what she thought about Native Americans, it is unlikely that she cheered their being slaughtered, but it is also unlikely that she was particularly sorry to see them go the way of history. Either way, she was wrong about them being primitive savages.

Now how did Rand, who was such an intelligent person, get this one so dead wrong?

I honestly don't know. She liked to claim that all of her judgments were based on a rational thought process based on the knowledge that was available. So... was she truly being rational all the time and did she not let bias cloud her judgment at all? Perhaps not. I am of the opinion that no one is really unbiased. We can try to be as unbiased as we can (the key word here being “try”), but I think that our own limitations as human beings prevent us from being completely unbiased.

Or was it because history text books at that time weren't giving accurate information about Native American history? I don't know. I'm not an expert about how American history was taught from the 1920s to the 1970s. Perhaps someone else who does know can expound on that topic.

If the way that American history was taught at the time, especially about Native Americans, was, indeed, inaccurate, then I think we can chalk this one up to her being the product of her times.

However, if the way that the history of Native Americans being taught to the general public in that era was not all that different from the way it is taught today, which I find doubtful, then, at least as far as this topic goes, Rand would have been guilty of being intellectually lazy, too.


So, she was wrong about Native Americans. Was she wrong about other things, too? Certainly. I definitely disagree with the way she portrayed the power-dynamics that occur between men and women. She thought that women always had to be “under” men – that women could not be happy if they tried to be “above” men. I disagree with that.

There are things that Rand said that I, and probably other Objectivists, too, disagree with.

So why do I still like Rand so much? Well, firstly, I have concluded that she tended to be right more often than she was wrong.  Secondly, there's a reason why her philosophy is called “Objectivism,” and not “Randianism.”

This is what Ayn Rand said about thinking.

Rand did a lot of thinking in her day. She was right about a lot of things, and she was wrong about some other things. As a student of Objectivism, I think that I owe it to myself to do my own thinking based on new information and knowledge that is presented to me; and not to rely on everything that Ayn Rand said.

For those who disagree with Rand, there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with her.  However, if you are going to disagree with Rand, perhaps it might be a good idea to actually familiarize yourself with her work, rather than rely on the biased commentary of others.