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Dealing in Disappointment: Ayn Rand, Anthem, and the (Possibly) Bitter Future. Feraco Myth to Science Fiction 23 February 2009. The Curtain Rises…. Your “Building a Better World” assignments indicate that the class has reached a consensus:

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dealing in disappointment ayn rand anthem and the possibly bitter future

Dealing in Disappointment: Ayn Rand, Anthem, and the (Possibly) Bitter Future


Myth to Science Fiction

23 February 2009

the curtain rises
The Curtain Rises…
  • Your “Building a Better World” assignments indicate that the class has reached a consensus:
    • A better world is more internationally united, less impoverished, and peaceful
    • It’s stocked with people who both care and understand more about themselves and others
  • It’s not hard to dream of such a world…
    • It hews fairly closely to our classic utopian views
  • …but it’s incredibly hard to make that dream a reality (due to both internal and external forces)
the wisdom of top 40 radio
The Wisdom of Top 40 Radio
  • None of you think that it will be easy to improve our world;
  • All of you recognize that improvement and progress is still needed;
  • Therefore, the class agrees that the world needs improving
  • Yet Anthem cautions us to essentially “be careful what we wish for ‘cause we just might get it.”
  • What arises in the wake of our attempt to improve something that seems functional?
the future freaks me out
The Future Freaks Me Out!
  • The society Rand creates equates:
    • independence with chaos
    • love with instability
    • privacy with sinfulness
    • mediocrity with perfection
  • It’s a hypocritical culture, with ideas that don’t even make sense when you examine them more closely
the future is incompetent
The Future is Incompetent?
  • The governing body is so terrified of individuality that they’ve eliminated I from the lexicon
    • Yet pronouns remain!
    • “We” essentially equals “I”
      • If it functions the same way, you eliminated a letter instead of an idea (the truly dangerous thing)
    • Language is a human invention
      • Why not eliminate all sense of possession, especially since no one seems to own anything?
sin and power
Sin and Power
  • Moreover, after the Council eliminates “I,” it perplexingly gives citizens a powerful reminder of the possibility of individual action by defining sin (or at least defining individual actions as sinful).
    • If you can do the former, why contradict it by introducing the latter, especially when you’ve already eliminated religion?
    • What does “sin” mean to a non-believer?
  • Everyone is supposedly equal, yet there are hierarchies everywhere
    • Members of the Council of Vocations have more power to choose a man’s profession than he does
    • It’s hard to imagine a person who would prefer to be a street sweeper instead of a scholar if given the opportunity to choose between the two
when good ideas go bad
When Good Ideas Go Bad
  • The ideas the civilization supposedly treasures seem utopian on the surface
    • Everyone gets the same educational experience
    • No one has to live in substandard housing
    • Everyone shares a unified system of values
    • No one needs to live in fear of outside violence or crime
  • On paper, this should be a peaceful, thriving society of enlightened and successful people
  • Instead, it’s a system that’s been co-opted by the people charged with maintaining it
  • It now holds its citizens in bondage (via philosophical control, one of our dystopian hallmarks) in order to benefit an extremely small class of elites
the darker side of revolution
The Darker Side of Revolution
  • If Rand’s message seems somewhat cynical, it is
    • Our brightest hopes and best intentions will ultimately be crippled by corruption, incompetence, laziness, and fear
  • Understand that her family was laid low in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution
  • Fairly or not, the young Rand learned to associate the revolutionary desire for communal, equitable living with the ugliness she’d seen perpetrated upon the people she loved most
  • In her eyes, agitators for fairness, self-sacrifice, and the strength of a community served only to steal from those who most deserved to succeed in order to coddle those who least deserved the help
  • She understands the Sheriff of Nottingham
the function of truth
The Function of Truth
  • It’s easy, then, to understand why Rand creates this society in Anthem that seemingly runs so counter to her personal philosophy
    • It is, in part, the expression of an old pain that still haunts her
  • On the surface, she and the society she creates seem to stand for many of the same things
    • For example, both prize the power of truth to influence men’s actions
    • But Rand treasures absolute truth and reason, whereas it (“it” being Anthem’s society) prizes stability through rewritten history and selective teachings
    • For Rand, truth ultimately leads humans towards betterment, even if these truths disturb us at present
    • For this society, all men must agree that something is truthful in order for it to be so
    • In other words, “truth” is less important than agreement, and it’s seen as harmful if it interferes with that harmony
the author s legacy
The Author’s Legacy
  • Rand condemns these types of perversions of principle and philosophy throughout her career.
  • She made a lot of money while trying to teach people to see the world her way.
  • An institute bearing her name continues to work in an effort to spread her ideas to new generations.
become what you hate
Become What You Hate
  • Yet readers and critical thinkers must wonder whether Rand risks falling victim to the same trap that bedeviled Anthem’s society
  • After all, her philosophy advances the idea that there’s only one correct way to think – which is essentially philosophical control, albeit without the actual application
  • Objectivism specifically denies skepticism, denies faith, and denies altruism – all attitudes that help distinguish our thought processes from one another
  • By devising a “manifesto” of thought that labels each of the above as worthless, isn’t she trying to convince others to agree with not just her conclusions, but with her entire mode of thinking?
become what you hate part ii
Become What You Hate, Part II
  • Is her ultimate goal to inspire a world of Objectivists – and does she believe we can have a successful world where people still disagree with her?
    • Think of how she characterizes those who disagree with her (the Councilors) in Anthem
  • Objectivism, by design, seems to be incompatible with opinion itself
    • It states that truth is truth
    • It’s our job to recognize truth rather than shape it through our interpretations
  • By taking this stance, is Rand unconsciously undermining the very principles to which Anthem owes its existence?
  • Is she any more accepting of alternative modes of thinking than Anthem’s Councils?
we pause to consider
We Pause to Consider…
  • These are tricky questions to consider, because Rand’s gone, and her defenders and proponents can’t really stand in for her
  • But it’s critical to understand this text in the context of its author’s philosophy and personal history, and these issues are key to understanding the philosophy that’s being advanced
  • After all, the text ultimately exists to teach a concept, which is why it was originally called Ego; it’s been repurposed as an anthem (or ode) to “man’s self and his capacity to reason.”
the page as mirror
The Page as Mirror
  • Rand clearly fancies herself as a sort of literary Equality
  • In theory, she, like him:
    • Possesses the intelligence (or genius, in his case) necessary to see through society’s lies to discover the truth
    • Has the guts one needs to spread those uncomfortable truths for the good of society (rather than cower silently while staying safe)
    • Chooses to associate with those who agree with her
  • As mentioned in your presentations, Rand sees Equality as the embodiment of all that we’re capable of as individuals
    • He’s able to throw off his fetters and achieve greatness with no help whatsoever
a failing helping hand
A Failing Helping Hand
  • But it must be noted that Equality does have help
    • The help of an incredibly poorly-executed society, the kind that builds a prison and somehow doesn’t think to guard it
  • This, too, seems odd
    • This society supposedly has the power to rise up and unite the world, to erase history and “I” from our minds
      • How can it be so incompetently run?
      • How can Equality be the first to successfully resist it?
        • (The Transgressor was captured and killed)
  • This is actually another of Rand’s points – that we’re easily conditioned to accept that which isn’t true and isn’t perfect, and that we deny or dismiss our instincts (as Solidarity and Fraternity do) in order to go through life more easily
convince yourself to accept the 5
Convince Yourself to Accept the 5
  • Picture the following hypothetical scenario:
  • Our lives are rated on a scale ranging from 1 to 10
    • 1 representing a completely hopeless, joyless existence
    • 10 representing near-deification
    • Let’s say you’re a 5
  • I give you a choice: You can continue living as a 5 for the rest of your days, or you can take a risk and flip a coin
    • Heads means you win, and you’ll live an 8-rated life
    • Tails means you lose, and you’ll live a 2-rated life
  • Do you stay where you are, or do you flip the coin?
rolling the die
Rolling the Die
  • Let’s pursue a different hypothetical
  • Depending on the choices we make and the plans we form, we can build ourselves “safety nets” that make risks less dangerous
  • In this scenario, your plans have left you with more options – so instead of a coin flip, you get to roll a four-sided die
    • The sides are marked 2, 4, 6, and 8
  • Do you roll the die, or do you remain a 5?
  • What if you’re married?
  • What if you’re a parent?
why roll the die
Why Roll the Die?
  • The more we have, the more risk-averse we tend to become
    • No one wants to doom their child to a 2-rated life when they could have provided a 5
  • Equality takes the die and rolls it (by going into the tunnel), but that’s because he has nothing to lose
    • He’s already a 2 at best and 1 at worst
      • He has nothing to make him happy (since he hasn’t made contact with Liberty yet)
      • He’s working a job he hates as penance for a sin he doesn’t really believe is wrong
      • He wakes up every morning knowing he’s capable of more, yet feeling awful
  • The only thing worse than this existence is death, and one could argue that such an occurrence might actually be preferable for Equality
  • So he rolls the die…then he rolls it again, and again, and again…lucky for him, the die seems to favor him!
into the wild
Into the Wild
  • Eventually, Equality’s choices leave him in the Uncharted Forest
    • The Forest initially represents confusion and fear
    • It turns out to be a refuge
  • Equality doesn’t get lost in the Forest so much as he finds his way through his own thoughts once he’s out from under society’s thumb
    • He understands himself better in isolation, which is why he makes a home in the house he discovers in the trees
    • He’s away from society, and he’s never been better
blinded by visions
Blinded by Visions
  • Ultimately, Rand argues that this society doesn’t work because it holds people like Equality down in order to settle for a uniform mediocrity
    • (It also drives them into the metaphorical Forest, but we’ll concentrate on one area for now)
  • This is illustrated most clearly in the sequence where the Scholars reject the lightbulb Equality constructs
    • Those in power choose expedience over advancement (why have bulbs when everyone has candles?)
  • It becomes clear that these people have stagnated, and that they’ve been blinded by their utopian visions.
forging the stuff of dreams
Forging the Stuff of Dreams
  • This points to the single biggest obstacle to utopian creation
  • Namely, it’s very easy to propose ideas, but much harder to shape the realities those ideas demand
  • Our actions have consequences, and even the ones we take with the best of intentions often have unexpected outcomes
  • Dystopias are chronicles of the unintended consequences of man’s pursuit of perfection, the destructive ripples of his attempt to build a better world 
don t let it happen today
Don’t Let It Happen Today
  • Rand constructs a society that violates every principle it holds because it’s easy to see how this can happen
    • Again, due either to corruption, incompetence, laziness, or fear
    • It takes work to make this work
  • Yet if we’re going to achieve our potential as human beings – something you feel we haven’t done yet, whether it’s from a technological or philosophical standpoint – we have to put in the work
    • Anthem proves that the stakes are too high for a society to dream big without planning for the practical implementation of that vision
back to the better world
Back to the Better World
  • We spoke in class about similarities between your better worlds and about how difficult it’ll be to create them
  • Many of you dream of a united world, but does this dream necessitate the death of religion, language, or even culture itself?
    • Think of the wars we’ve fought over cultural differences (with respect to values), let alone the innumerable conflicts between practitioners of different faiths
    • Take these away, and all we’ll have left to fight over are resources
  • It’s so easy to wish that things like war couldn’t happen any more…but how heavy is the cost we’re willing to pay for peace?
unintended consequences
Unintended Consequences
  • Many of you also dreamed of a restructured class system, but failed to explain how the state of living for the lower class would be improved
    • For example, how are you encouraging others to serve the needs of the poor better than they currently are?
  • Some of you posited different criteria for constructing classes – not so much replacing the class system as reforming it
    • Yet stricter class divisions seem to carry unintended consequences as well
    • If it’s not simply a matter of accumulating wealth any more, does identity theft diminish – or rise?
  • Finally, how do we deal with former prisoners – the rehabilitated members of society?
    • Do we give them jobs at your parents’ expense to keep them from falling back into the cycles that landed them in jail to begin with?
when schooling s a luxury
When Schooling’s a Luxury
  • Many of you made education mandatory, but failed to explain how we should begin to turn around our school system
  • How do we:
    • Rebuild broken campuses?
    • Staff urban classrooms with competent instructors?
    • Perhaps most importantly, how do we convince people to be instructors to begin with, especially in fields like mathematics and science (where skilled thinkers can earn far more in the private sector without being “forced to put up with students,” particularly those who have no inclination to learn)?
  • For that matter, what do you do with home-schooled children?
  • How do we provide more stable funding for our schools?
don t worry
Don’t Worry!
  • I’m not saying this to be critical – I promise
  • In fact, I’m pointing out the opposite
  • Good ideas can come from anyone, and I’m trying to encourage you to start thinking outside the box
    • (“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”)
  • So I want you to start thinking about practical solutions to problems you’ve never seriously attacked before
  • After all, if the Reality Check proved anything, it’s that you’ll own these problems before you know it
in closing
In Closing…
  • Ultimately, Anthem can be any number of things
    • It can serve as your introduction to Objectivism, a philosophical system you may enjoy or admire
    • I’m trying to use it as a rallying cry for you to begin thinking about civic issues – schools, labor, influence, health, rights, etc. – in concrete terms, rather than as abstract things that you’ll get around to dealing with someday, or hoping to never need to deal with at all
    • Or it can just be a boring, oddly-written book written by a woman who’s been dead for decades
      • (Don’t let it become that last one.)
and beyond
…and Beyond
  • We’re going to start debating civil issues – the ones pertaining to the “Equalities” in our society
    • Ultimately, we’re trying secure a better future for ourselves and our children without falling into the dystopian trap
  • The first one on the docket is near and dear to me: education.
  • How should we deal with Equality as a student in our society?
    • Should we segregate him and place him on an Honors-level track, thus robbing him of experiences with a variety of other people – the very people he’ll someday work with?
    • Do we hold him back, “normalizing” him with the rest of his class?
  • How should we treat our students as thinkers, as learners, and as human beings?
    • Should we take a unified or differentiated approach?
    • Should we push you, or pull back and let you learn at your own pace?
    • Should we be strict or relaxed?
    • Should we have a narrow focus or use a survey approach?
  • And how do we provide opportunities for everyone, instead of just for the gifted and beautiful?
  • (These are just a few of the questions we’ll pursue.)