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Luker and Rand

Ralph Luker posts his reply to my criticisms of his list of the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. A few other people have gotten in on the discussion too, including fellow HNN'er Irfan Khawaja and Grant Jones.

Luker titles his reply, "Listmania and Maturity," and then goes on to express surprise at my use of the word "obscene" to describe his inclusion of Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead on a list that includes Mein Kampf and Protocals of the Elders of Zion. He also expresses disapproval of a comment left at my blog by Technomaget, who calls Luker, in no uncertain terms, a "moron."

Let me clarify a few things.

First, I am not calling Luker "obscene" and I have not called him a moron either. What I thought was "obscene" was placing a pair of works by Rand on a list that includes titles written by mass murderers. I use "obscene" as a synonym for "offensive" and find that particular coupling of Rand and Hitler very offensive.

If Luker had called his list a list of the ten worst books he'd ever read, or a list of the ten most annoying books, or the ten most useless books, or the ten most immature books, I probably would never have noticed it. But "harmful" carries with it a certain stigma, as I explained in my L&P/Notablog post. Strictly defined it means "causing or capable of causing harm." And on those grounds, I just don't see any reasonable criterion by which to equate Rand's novels with Mein Kampf. As Grant Jones puts it succinctly: "Has any reader of her works built Death Camps?" (brings back memories of Whittaker Chambers' cry, upon reading Atlas: "To a gas chamber—go!") As we say here in Brooklyn: "Fuhgedaboudit! You gotta be kiddin' me!"

Luker states: "In a moment of weakness (it just seemed like years of agony), I read Ayn Rand and I don't worship at her shrine! My lack of admiration for Ayn Rand is well known." Well that's fine. I admire her work but I don't worship at her shrine either. And, again, I would have had little problem if Luker had simply said: "These books suck." But suckitude is not the criterion for "harmfulness," especially when one is drawing up a list of books that crosses the line into Hitler territory.

As for Rand's work being serious or unserious, I'm afraid there's nothing in Luker's post that would give me a clue as to the nature of his assessment. Luker may not like Rand's philosophy, but let me assure him that it is not a "so-called philosophy," as he puts it. It may not be a philosophy with which Luker agrees, but it's a systematic philosophy, with integrated positions in ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. It is a philosophy that includes a commitment to realism, ethical egoism, individualism, and capitalism. And it is being taken seriously by people on every end of the political and philosophical spectrum, not only in the pages of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies but in a growing list of professional scholarly journals (see here).

If Luker would like to broaden his realm of toleration to include a few of us who were at least moved by Rand's work, let alone influenced, and who don't manifest "immaturity" or a "cult-like psychological disorder" or "delayed adolescent omnipotence," maybe we could talk more seriously. Ad hominem masquerading as psychological diagnosis is no substitute for discussion.

Comments welcome.

Cross-posted to L&P, and mentioned at SOLO HQ here. I also left comments in a thread at Cliopatria here.

Update: I'm glad to see a few comments here, but wanted to mention that Luker has raised a number of important questions that I answer here (see here, here, here, and here as well). I republish it here because I think it's worth repeating. Luker asked: "Do you object to the appearance of Freud on the list with Hitler? Harm is done in different ways and on different levels. I said that and, yet, the Rand defenders continue to act as if I didn't. Why the Rand defenders and not the Freud defenders or the Mahan defenders?"

I replied:

Ralph, let me answer that question; it's a legitimate one. If you had listed Mises's Human Action or Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, I would have had the same reaction, and not out of any desire to defend "sacred texts." And, in fact, I also defended Spencer in my original post, but that point seems to have been lost. Mises left behind his library to escape from Nazi tyranny. Both Mises and Hayek were furiously opposed to Nazism, fascism, communism, and socialism (though there are differences of degree, I think, between Mises and Hayek concerning their positions on certain welfare-state regulations). So, any list that would have included Mises or Hayek along with Adolf Hitler would have ruffled my feathers as well. (And, apparently, you cite fellow "Cliopatriarch" Hugo Schwyzer, who came up with an "if only" mock list of banned books, and placed Hayek's works on that list.)

Libertarians have been defending against the charge that they are apologists for fascism for eons now. In the light of the fact that many libertarian theorists have developed a radical critique of fascism and contemporary neofascism, the charge is especially nonsensical.

Still, certain writers have been trying to pull this slipshod intellectual package-dealing of libertarianism and fascism for years. I've heard the same refrain for so long but I've never become anesthesized to it. So I speak up.

Now it's true: You did not say that you were necessarily comparing libertarians or Objectivists to Nazis, and you've made it clear that "Harm is done in different ways and on different levels." But the lack of any stated criterion or any reasoning for the inclusion of Rand, Spencer, etc., left this reader with a big Question Mark as to the nature of your assessment. And since I know too many people who are ready to declare that Mises, Hayek, and Rand were all fascists anyway, I decided to blog about it.

If this makes me especially defensive because my "sacred" authors are being attacked... well, fine. But sometimes I find it necessary to speak up when positions are not made clear, and comparative implications to Nazism are left dangling in the air like some lethal gas.


And it should not go unnoticed his endorsement of the ridiculous quote that groups Hayek with Buckley and Strauss and fecetiously suggests a lefty ban on them.

And how many times are we supposed to repeat that Rand's egoism has nothing to do with egoism as its conventionally understood? If the guy, who is supposed to be so smart, read the books, and still doesn't understand that fact... well, draw your own conclusions.

To seriously compare the "harm" of Rand's work to that of Hitler's or Lenin's suggests a real concern about Objectivism's potential influence in the future (Alan Greenspan can't have 'em that upset!) However absurd, perhaps this is one of the more revealing indicators of Rand's growing influence...

Here is my response to his comments:


Thanks for your comments, folks.

I've added an update above, as this discussion seems to have broadened to include a number of blogs and bloggers.

I always have found it amazing that people could claim that Ayn Rand was a Hobsian, a Nietzian, or a egotistical crypto nazi without backing it up with even some form of arguments.

I am very glad you are calling his bluff because thats what it is. These people know next to nothing about Ayn Rand, Objectivism or even libertarianism. Its about time someone kicked their ass! :-)

Ok Chris, but then why don´t you show the same outrage with Freud´s inclusion on Ralph´s list? Was Freud a mass murderer like Hitler or Lenin? Aren´t his writtings taken VERY seriously, inspite of the hatred his works inspire on certain anglo saxon philosophic circles?

Sergio, thanks for your comments. I was going to say a bit more about this "harmful books" list in any event, and your comments prompted me to explore that topic in greater detail. See here:


"Aren´t his writtings taken VERY seriously, inspite of the hatred his works inspire on certain anglo saxon philosophic circles?"

Isn't that the problem? Freud's unscientific theories have had far too much influence on psychology (which happily has moved on to other trends) and literary criticism. I, unlike Freud, believe that perhaps weaving was not invented by women to compensate for the lack of a penis.


>If this makes me especially defensive because my "sacred" authors are being attacked... well, fine.

Yeah, "getting defensive" is an in-vogue thoughtcrime. Say a mugger runs up to you and smacks you on the head with a club. You yelp, "Don't do that! That is wrong!" The response from the mugger: "Hey, don't get so defensive with your black-and-white moral theology there! Why this cultistic regard for your own life and wallet I don't know. This is my job yo!" "Er, okay, sorry about that...I'm open to your viewpoint too of course...."

Ranking Fountainhead/Atlas as among "ten most harmful" books of the last century? That is calculated to offend. Okay, maybe this guy ran into a really annoying Randian when he was in school. Happens. But you can't judge a book by its zealots, and these books are appealing because of their dramatic portrayals of individualism and independent-minded creativity. To be sure, if one's own philosophy avers that it is "destructive" for human beings and their capacities to be thus venerated and defended, and in completely secular wise, the most powerful and persuasive works of art accomplishing this would certainly make the hit list. But that don't make the assessment right.

He's shocked because one who recognizes Rand's value might take offense? That is coy beyond belief. You just gotta tell this guy, Chris, dialectically, dualistically, monistically, whatever, "Sorry, Mr. No-Idea-I-Could-Possibly-Have-Offended, I did not graduate from the Oprah seminar on how to be a cheerful and accommodating doormat when people indefensibly disparage the things I care about."