Saturday, January 16, 2010

"On the Other Hand," or, "From Russia, With Love"



On the one hand:
"For three years Americans have been complaining of a depression. They don't even know what it is..."At times I have eaten cakes made of ground carrot greens, coffee grounds, and acorns."
"Russian Girl Jeers at U.S. for Depression Complaint," Oakland Tribune, 1932
On the other hand:
"If America is to be saved from destruction-specifically, from dictatorship-she will be saved by her sense of life." –Ayn Rand, "Don't Let It Go", 1971
Wow. What a difference four decades makes.

It may have been worse in Russia, but I wonder if Rand didn't drop context in her comparison. She had it better in Hollywood than in Russia, for sure, but then, she wasn't in the middle of the dust bowl, either. And yet, if we were to compare our economic downturn to that of yesteryear, we would probably say the same thing to the struggling today.

But even limited to Rand's own lifetime, it's interesting to see just how her vision changed. Compare the statements of the younger Rand with her post-Atlas counterpart. In one of her L.A. Times column entries of 1962, titled "Just Suppose," Rand makes the following statement, regarding education:
"On the one hand, education is acclaimed as the country's vital need and the government proposes to spend millions of tax dollars under the so-called 'Aid to Education' program. On the other hand, the great majority of hard-working families, from whom those taxes are squeezed, cannot afford to give their children a college education, or can do so only at the price of real hardships...

On the one hand, the government professes concern over the young people who drop out of school because they cannot afford to continue their education. On the other hand, the young people who struggle to work their way through school are forced to pay taxes on the desperately insufficient earnings which they spend to equip themselves by their own effort for a productive career...look at the night schools where adults of all ages are striving to study, after a full workday, willing to spend eight years on a four-year college course–and you will have to feel that the taxes they pay are indeed blood money.
From 1962 to 1966, in "The Question of Scholarships":

"...the young people of today are not responsible for the immoral state of the world into which they are born...it is welfare statism that has almost destroyed the possibility of working one's way through college. It was difficult but not impossible some decades ago; today, it has become a process of close-to-inhuman torture. There are virtually no part-time jobs that pay enough to support oneself while going to school; the alternative is to hold a full-time job and to attend classes at night–which takes eight years of unrelenting twelve-to-sixteen-hour days, for a four-year college course. If those responsible for such conditions offer the victim a scholarship, his right to take it is incontestable-and it is too painfully small an amount even to register on the scales of justice, when one considers all the other, the nonmaterial, nonamendable injuries he has suffered.

Post-Atlas Rand does seem to recover some of the optimism of the early Ayn Rand, with something of a reversion to her earliest interview: In 1971. In a Ford Hall Forum Q&A, when asked why she advised college students to stay in school, she answers:
"Because you should never help your own destroyers. They goal of the type of educators I criticize–who are a majority today, but don't have a monopoly–is to defeat the mind...

"There are two reasons you need not quit: (1) There are still some good teacher, and (2) Man is not a determined being; his education can help him or hinder him, but it doesn't make or break him. Therefore, he can remain impervious to the influence of his educators, if he does some clear and critical thinking on his own–that is, if he neither accepts his teachers on blind faith nor criticizes them blindly...If his teacher is hopelessly intolerant, the student need not make himself a martyr; but he still learns (even in reverse), preserves his mind, and gets his diploma.

"Incidentally, I graduated from the University of Leningrad. No conditioning that you are subjected to could compare to what I went through (and I'm glad you don't have to go through it.) You can survive today's schools."
Now there, Rand was referring to the content of the education, not the struggle of paying for school; the difference should be noted. But that difference has an importance of its own, if we jump from Rand's thoughts on education to her later thoughts on the future of the country. Rand made the point, with We the Living, that her escape was a "fluke," that such an "airtight" system sucks the life out of the best, and that is why there is no hope for Kira in the end.

But she knew time what was happening...
"It is too late for a movement of people who hold a conventional mixture of contradictory philosophical notions. It is too early for a movement of people dedicated to a philosophy of reason. But it is never too late or too early to propagate the right ideas–except under a dictatorship."

"If a dictatorship ever comes to this country, it will be by the default of those who keep silent. We are still free enough to speak. Do we have time? No one can tell. But time is on our side–because we have an indestructible weapon and an invincible ally (if we learn how to use them): reason and reality."

"If America is to be saved from destruction-specifically, from dictatorship-she will be saved by her sense of life." But she was also writing in 1971 that "the political trend is pure statism and is moving toward a totalitarian dictatorship at a speed which, in any other country, would have reached that goal long ago." But her belief in the American "Sense of life" was so strong that she wrote: "Only one thing is certain: a dictatorship cannot take hold in America today. This country, as yet, cannot be ruled–but it can explode. It can blow up into the helpless rage and blind violence of a civil war. It cannot be cowed into submission...Not yet."

"Not yet." Yet she knew, even in 1971, that "If America drags on in her present state for a few more generations (which is unlikely), dictatorship will become possible. A sense of life is not a permanent endowment. The characteristically American one is being eroded daily all around us. Large numbers of Americans have lost it (or have never developed it) and are collapsing to the psychological level of Europe's worse rabble."

It seems that Rand's hope is gone in 60 seconds: "Can this country achieve a peaceful rebirth in the foreseeable future? By all precedents, it is not likely." But Rand recovers: "But America is an unprecedented phenomenon. In the past, American perseverance became, on occasion, too long-bearing a patience. But when Americans turned, they turned."

So, in her conclusion, she writes that "Is there enough of the American sense of life left in people-under the constant pressure of the cultural-political efforts to obliterate it?"

On the one hand:
"It is impossible to tell."

On the other hand:

"But those of use who hold it, must fight for it. We have no alternative: we cannot surrender this country to a zero–to men whose battle cry is mindlessness."

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