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To Dare to Speak Its Name: Ayn Rand’s Mastery of Invective

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By Walter Donway

February 12, 2017

 

So powerful was Ayn Rand’s art of giving a name or label to what had been nameless, that for decades thousands of her students have made the terms part of their vocabulary of thought and teaching—and some terms are now widely used outside of Objectivism.

In recent weeks, as the inauguration of Donald Trump took place despite the near hysteria of opponents, what has characterized editorials, marches, and public confessions of faith by famous Hollywood stars? That’s right—name calling.

Speaking to the “Women’s March” on Washington, the day after Mr. Trump was sworn into office, Hollywood actress Ashley Judd seized a microphone and hissed, referring to the new President of the United States:

“I am not as nasty as racism, fraud, conflict of interest, homophobia, sexual assault, transphobia, white supremacy, misogyny, ignorance, white privilege ….  I am not as nasty as your own daughter being your favorite sex symbol, like your wet dreams infused with your own genes.”

Judd’s mother, like mine, probably taught that name calling is not “nice,” but we have moved beyond that, I’m afraid, to ask only if a name actually names some reality.

Ayn Rand’s literary genius—in fiction and, if possible, still more in nonfiction—manifested itself in command of suspense, philosophical action, evocation of complex sensory experiences, a tone of conviction absent in modern fiction, brilliant parody, lethal satire, and—I am arbitrarily cutting short the list, here—invective.

Like all literary devices surviving for millennia, some since ancient Greece and Rome, invective has roots in our conceptual faculty—the analyzing, integrating, learning, storing, and recalling human mind. Like all products of conceptualizing, to be valid, invective must be traceable back to reality.

Invective, or name calling, is a literary device that has been practiced for centuries. I am going to resist the amusing examples. Shakespeare was a master; so was Jonathan Swift. It is easy to find classic instances of name-calling as literary art.

Ayn Rand was a master of literary invective without peer in our time—a consummate name-caller. That is just one of many complaints of her “critics,” who usually have read (at most) one of her books, and attack her as mean-spirited and adolescent for name calling.

But like all literary devices surviving for millennia, some since ancient Greece and Rome, invective has roots in our conceptual faculty—the analyzing, integrating, learning, storing, and recalling human mind. Like all products of conceptualizing, to be valid, invective must be traceable back to reality, that which exists independent of the mind. To create true invective is to name something and what is named must exist.

Judd’s list fails this test. It is doubtful she can cite one concrete action or behavior of Mr. Trump named by her outpouring of mostly politically correct scare terms. Most of her terms refer to alleged intentions, to imputed mental states, to alleged patterns of thought; they do not name demonstrated behavior. Any credibility they seem to possess derives from the rumors, accusations, and innuendoes swirling around Mr. Trump during the election. Most had no content to begin with (racism); others were discredited by investigation of the facts (mocking a disabled reporter); some others invoked a bizarre double-standard of judging behavior (the furor over a comment about women).

Ayn Rand seldom aimed invective at individuals; her genius was to identify and name a pattern of thought (usually as displayed in writing)—the “anti-conceptual mentality”—an ideology—“The Fascist New Frontier,” the “anti-industrial revolution”—argumentation—“The Art of Smearing”—the character of a policy—“Anti-Trust: The Rule of Unreason”the nature of a principle—racism as “barnyard collectivism”—a relationship—“The Pull Peddlers”—or the state of a country—“Our Cultural Bankruptcy.”

Notice that most of these examples are titles of essays, an indication of the paramount importance she gave to powerful invective. Dozens more could be named: “Activists: The Headless Horsemen,” “The Comprachicos,” and “Bootleg Romanticism.”

So powerful was her art of giving a name or label to what had been nameless, that for decades thousands of her students have made the terms part of their vocabulary of thought and teaching—and some terms are now widely used outside of Objectivism. An example is Rand’s naming of “the Fascist New Frontier”—identifying for the first time that the socialism replacing freedom in the United States is not the Russian-Chinese-(and for a time) British model of public ownership of the means of production. It is the economic system under National Socialism in Germany and in fascist Italy. It is difficult to think of a more revealing and far-reaching example of invective—daring to identify something by “name-calling”—in a single title of an article.

Ayn Rand’s grasp of the nature of concept formation included understanding that naming as such is indispensable to the conceptual level of consciousness. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, the most accessible and inspiring work on the theory of knowledge that I know, demonstrated how “concepts” are mental integrations of similar particular entities that we perceive. By identifying similarities in the attributes of all chairs, for example, and distinguishing them from everything else we perceive, we meld a literally limitless number of particulars into a single new mental entity. But a final step is required to nail down in our mind, and language, that new integration. We give it a spoken/writer tag, a name: “chair.”

Who can forget the “moochers,” “witch doctors,” “evaders,” “looters,” “pull peddlers” and their “blank-out,” “whim worship,” and “concrete-bound” mentality?

Ayn Rand formed concept after concept to enable us to think in new ways about the world, to reason, argue, and integrate areas of thought. I have taken as a prime example of her outpouring of conceptual creativity her genius with the literary form called invective: name calling as technique of literary attack. Ayn Rand made invective a “consciousness-raising” but also entertaining aspect of all her writing. Who can forget the “moochers,” “witch doctors,” “evaders,” “looters,” “pull peddlers” and their “blank-out,” “whim worship,” and “concrete-bound” mentality?

As our Postmodernist intellectual “elite” and caretakers of the altruist/collectivist ideal in America square off, in years ahead, to battle the tentative, hopeful, but still dangerously unconceptualized rebellion of the American people, names and labels will fly. The Postmodernists are in fact neo-Marxists, yet another iteration of the “New Left,” for whom language, ideas, and debate are not a quest to understand reality—they scoff at the idea of “objective reality”—but a weapon in the battle between oppressors and oppressed.

To accurately name an as-yet-unidentified aspect of that battle can be powerful. Making explicit the concept of the “politically correct” and “crony capitalism,” for example, has given the Postmodernists, including the media, big headaches. Perhaps, too (it is far too early to tell), with the term “fake news.”

Notice that suddenly, because of Trump, there are headlines about “truth,” “fake news,” and “alternate facts.” My hypothesis is that the nomination and election inoculated Mr. Trump and his colleagues against the news-and-opinion racket in America today. The nation’s most respected newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs flung aside any remaining standards of objectivity, balance, fairness, or even minimal professionalism to defeat the Trump candidacy. They risked all and lost. It is notable that the New York Times, the liberals’ barometer of truth, required an ad campaign about the truth of its reporting.

To make a new conceptual identification that is urgently needed, but which no one has pinned down as yet with a name, is a remarkable achievement of thinking.
And in any new debate, an indispensable step in empowering reason.

Ayn Rand identified as a dominating feature of contemporary journalism, that a crucial issue never was named when it was under attack. And so, Barry Goldwater’s insistence that principles required consistency was dubbed “extremism,” and the steady erosion of freedom never was debated in terms of socialism versus laissez faire capitalism, and “affirmative action” policies never were advocated as “racism” for justifiable goals.

To make a new conceptual identification that is urgently needed, but which no one has pinned down as yet with a name, is a remarkable achievement of thinking.

And in any new debate, an indispensable step in empowering reason.

 

 
This essay was first published on The Atlas Society’s website as “Ayn Rand, Donald Trump, and the Art of the Insult

 

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