Plunging Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Jacobson’s book, noted from its title, is the story of how a racial consciousness carrying firm divisions between Jews, Poles, Germans, Scandinavians, and other “whites,” rose to prominancy in the American consciousness, and then fell into the single category of Caucasian. As with his book Special Sorrows, Jacobson is not shy in using multiple methods and sources to explore racial consciousness, through state laws, scientific papers, popular discourse on sexuality and race, immigrant literature and even the curriculum of public schools—from Mark Twain to the New York draft riots and New Orleans lynchings.

Making Jacobson’s obvious are scholars of race who too often conflate race with color, which is Jacobson seeks to historicize as a “late-twentieth-century understanding of ‘difference’” (6). To Jacobson, “by looking at racial categories and their fluidity over time, we glimpse the competing theories of history which inform the society and define its internal struggles.” This refies a monolithic whiteness to Jacobson, and underestimates the power of racial categories to shift depending upon historical circumstance, and that there is some genuine truth to the current racial categories that have emerged as more truthful than racial categories in the past.

To put race in historical perspective, Jacobson names three epochs, the first emerging in the nation’s first naturalization law that names citizenship to “Free white persons” in 1790, the second in the period of mass European immigration from the 1840s to 1924, where whiteness was put into a hierarchy of difference and scientifically defined white races mapped around both capital and their “fitness for self government,” and finally, after the 1920s, where the caucasion race counterbalanced the African-American migrations into the urban centers. As one might immediately tell after reading this list, Jacobson may implicitly be dealing only with a certain America, that of the Northeast, as the impact of heavy Asian immigration is missing from this analysis, as is the African American racialization before urban migration began.

What is perhaps the most enlightening running theme of this book is introduced in the first part, which is that economic forces and capital had one hand in the racializations of immigrants, yet, there was another force just as powerful and determining a factor of how different kinds of whiteness was valued. What defines whiteness in the first place, is the naturalization law of 1970, where:

Deeply embedded racial assumptions of republican ideology, then, in combination with the practical “necessities of a slaveholding, settler democracy on a “savage” continent, led to an unquestioned acceptance of whiteness as a prerequisite for naturalized citizenship.  (30)

Due to this assumption of whiteness, Republicanism in this period “would favor or exclude certain peoples on the basis of their ‘fitness for self-government,’ as the phrase went, and some questionable peoples would win inclusion based upon an alchemic reaction attending Euro-American contact with peoples of color” (17). Because whiteness was the defining factor of citizenship, and America itself was a democracy that heavily relied on the education and participation of its members, republicanism was embedded within the racial ideology of the period. As Jacobson says:

the political history of whiteness and its vicissitudes between the 1840s and the 1920s represents a shift from one brand of bedrock racism to another—from the unquestioned hegemony of a unified race of white persons to a contest over political “fitness” among a now fragmented, hierarchically arranged series of distinct “white races. (43)

The illogics of racism become paramount in eras of racial riots and heavy European immigration, where “nativism” becomes redefined to fit certain white races and not others, to include those who might bring better stock into citizenship. As Jacobson says, “at issue now was simply which ‘white persons’ truly shared what an earlier generation had indiscriminately conceived of as…the ‘white man’s gifts’” (69). The naturalization law would continually redefine racial consciousness with court cases where racial minorities lay claim to whiteness, beginning with Ah Yup(1878, Chinese, “scientific evidence,”) culminating in Halladjian(1909, Armenians are white),Yamashita(1902) Ozawa(1922, Japanese not white)¸and Thind(1920, Indians are not white) in the 1910s and 1920s (75).

What helped define whiteness in law as Caucasian rather than a hierarchy, was first eugenics, where “the full authority of modern science [was brought] to bear on white identity [and] did so in a way that challenged the scheme of hierarchically ordered white races” and popular belief, led primarily by naturalist writers such as Frank Norris, Jack London, and Owen Wister (94). To Jacobson, “literary naturalism was defined by the very notions of race that drove the immigration debate,”  and naturalist writers “imbibed and popularized the racial truth of indivisible whiteness” (89). Finally, the third factor in culminating white races into a single category, “caucasion,” was the racial imagination of barbarian others that took hold of American consciousness from travel literature and the Spanish-American war. Jacobson explains:

Discourses of nationhood, savagery, and civilization throughout [the early twentieth century] also gathered European immigrants—however grudgingly—into the community of European conquerors. The manufacture and maintenance of “Caucasion” whiteness depended in part, as Humphrey Desmond had it in 1898, upon national encounters with “barbarian dominions” even more problematic than the immigrants themselves—from constant (and constantly narrated) contact with “black morsels” like the nations of the plains, Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa, Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Philippines. (222)

At stake in Jacobson’s writing is the notion, handed down by Robert Parks, that racial consciousness is generated by “an awareness of otherwise unnotable physical markers,” and that color is the primary marker that distinguishes race. For Jacobson, the primary markers of difference are fluid, and are at times color, but are always directed towards particular groups when they are “socially or politically important for one reason or another” (105). The Celts, for instance, were grouped as “monkey-like” and often pictured with large jaws, and tilted noses—like a monkey. The marker of racial difference, in other words, depends not merely on the physiognomic differences between peoples, but on the need to recognize difference in political or social interests.

Plunging Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York : Harper & Row, 1911.

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first” (ix).

At a time when the Pinkertons and police were deployed to break strikes, Taylor’s book arrives with the promise that since his system has been implemented, “there has never been a single strike among the men working in this system” (18).  The system is intended to promote an alignment between the management and the workers, eliminating “soldiering,” increasing pay while doubling the amount of work per day. The worker is made to be “incapable of understanding this science,” and selected based on their abilities to follow orders and to become robust automatons (31). For Taylor, soldiering is encouraged by large groups (i.e. unions), “that when men work in gangs, their individual efficiency falls almost invariably down to or below the level of the worst man in the gang; and that they are all pulled down instead of being elevated by being heralded together” (60). Since this includes getting rid of all the workers who are capable of understanding the science put upon them, this also means “laying off many of the most intelligent, hardest working, and most trustworthy [workers]” (76). His system requires each man to forgo the variety of learning a trade, and to enlist their abilities to a single task, to be ordered and controlled by the management. While the promise to get rid of unions and strikes is itself alluring to management, in case the management needs altruistic reasons to revolutionize their production method, Taylor notes that “the people” will benefit the most from this shift in production, that is, the consumers, “who ultimately pay both the wages of the workmen and the profits of the employers” (119). By increasing profit, the consumer will benefit from cheap commodities, and will “insist that justice shall be done to all three parties” (121).

Plunging Jacobson, Special Sorrows

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

By tracing the ideological geographies of Polish, Jewish and Irish immigrants near the turn of the century through literature and pop-culture, Matthew Jacobson shows how the immigrant imaginary was often times focused one questions of emigration, peoplehood and collective identity. The comparisons between these three groups show commitments to Old World allegiances and struggles as well as desires to reconstitute themselves collectively as distinctly American. Rather than looking to these groups for timetables and paradigms of assimilation, Jacobson tracks the obligations and diasporic imaginaries that made the immigrants always feel a part of the distant national community.

The origins of diasporic figures in each of these groups alludes to their links to the horrors of misrule and struggles for liberation that produced them. For the Irish, it is the exile, for the Pole, it is the pilgrim, and for the Jew, it is the wanderer. Jacobson casts these figures as “living symbols of oppression” that poignantly testify “to the horrors of misrule” (13). These figures emerge not out of the historical studies of the period, but from the cultural production that these groups undertook, which shows that “everyday sociability was often infused with political meaning” and “if we consider immigrant outlooks as opposed to political outcomes, these nationalist movements and debates were not marginal but central” (54). Faced with a disconnection with the past and the homeland, immigrant groups frequently retold their own stories through cultural production, beginning with didactic journals meant to “control and guide their respective movements” as well as envisage a nation and its worldwide diaspora through a homogenous empty time (61). The mythical national histories laden in popular religion also provided an everyday language and place to discuss questions of nationalism: “questions of peoplehood, sovereignty, and national purpose were fixed in both the logic of belief and in the styles of devotion” (74).

Finally, literature, festivals and dramas kept nationalist spirits alive, while at times contesting different meanings of the nation and diaspora that came about, as Jacobson explains: “nationalism surfaced and resurfaced in a myriad of cultural forms, infusing a wide variety of social activities which are rarely considered as remote to the daily routines of immigrant life as the distant and nebulous affairs of international politics proper” (92). Cultural forms then kept political debates unrestricted and available through literary forms. The manner in which diasporic literatures departed from their Old World relatives, Jacobson says, depends “upon the demographic, linguistic, and economic circumstances of cultural production in the New World ghetto” (95). Very often the artists in these communities were themselves political activists, taking up the creation of a national character through celebration of deeds, advancing notions of the heroic, and condemning certain vices:

Literature, in short, represented one of the critical practices by which these new global scatterings of people proclaimed their unity as discrete populations, defined their distinctive virtues, policed their boundaries, sustained their enmities, and projected themselves as candidates for political self-determination. (97)

For immigrant literature, cultural production most often articulated a group identity as their national identity, that Irish were not just politically rebellious, but that their communities had attitudes of rebellion. To proclaim the group as a national identity was to enforce the idea that “this national identity entailed a lasting commitment to certain cherished loves and hatreds” (136).

The immigrant discourse around the Spanish-American war, which were intertwined with the rebellions in Cuba and the Philippines, are present in Jacobson’s account as ways to “assess the tecture of political argument and to analyze the intellectual and ideological currents which were tapped by discussants along the political spectrum” (144). Very often these discussions show the tensions between Old World sensibility and New World political activity, and at the very least, the tensions between the homeland and belonging to the new land. Outright protests were often held within immigrant communities against conquests of Cuba and the Philippines, especially in the beginning of the war, since immigrant communities were already suspicious of civilizing rhetoric and forms of class power. However, as rhetoric surrounding the war became more enmeshed in national liberation, American pride and ideas of manhood, immigrant communities began utilizing the fever created by the war to enlist their own men as regiments in the army and to gain some political recognition through service and pride in the American empire.

For the Philippines, many immigrants immediately forged “a damning critique of American empire-building based upon a rare empathy with the Filipinos themselves, yet as race began to group immigrants into different types of “whiteness” while the Filipinos were grouped under mongrels and savages, “becoming American” soon meant “becoming Caucasian” (182). Indeed, the new terms for race coming into the American imaginary as attempts to make the Filipino more Other, succeeded for immigrant communities in making themselves more accountable, shifting the ideas of dominant racial groups from Anglo-Saxon to simply white or Caucasian. The fierceness with which many cultural forms drive toward becoming Caucasian, and in effect becoming American,  show a type of breaking with the home land, for rather than defining themselves in terms of their “ethnic whiteness,” the communities became defined in terms of Americanness. But to align so vehemently with the white race was not necessarily to abandon the critique of empire, rather, many immigrant nationalists were able to perform both by insisting upon America’s “anti-imperialist pedigree,” and using the models of George Washington, rather than their “ethnic” nationalist heroes, to critique overseas expansion (208).

Amy Kaplan’s The Social Construction of American Realism

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Amy Kaplan’s first book makes efforts to form a way of reading that not only takes into account the methods of cultural production, but the social effects and utility of literature in its own time. For realism, this first means of rescuing the genre from its contemporary conceptions as a failed, un-American genre that stands weakly against American romance and sentimentalism. Kaplan argues that “the association of the romance with a uniquely American culture has displaced realizsm as an anomalous and distinctly un-American margin of literary criticism, which has necessarily viewed its literary mode as a failure” (3). However, the romance thesis itself was born out of the New Critics and the unease of World War II which demanded for a more authentic American genre.  Since realism is influenced greatly by European novels, it seemed like European mimicry rather than an authentic reflection of American attitudes.

Kaplan attempts to rethink realism by naming it a social construction, in that the way it has been viewed is itself contingent with historical circumstance and theoretical paradigms. Though many critics have attempted to rethink realism for similar reasons, most dissect realism as responses to social change rather than agents of social change themselves. As she says “the treatment of texts as responses to social change implicitly situates literature outside the arena of social history, looking down and commenting upon it, and thereby reinforces the rigid split between social structures and literary structures” (5). Seeing realist cultural production as determined by history as well as agents of historical change enables a new way of reading realism that finds in its stylistic inconsistencies and problematic endings attempts to shift social relations in their own time. For Kaplan, these inconsistencies do not rupture aesthetic value or style, but identify moments where form is used to actively engage with historical change:

As  [realists] begin to treat literary form as a social practice, these historical approaches reclaim the American novelist’s engagement with society. Realists do more than passively record the world outside; they actively create and criticize the meanings, representations, and ideologies of their own changing nature. (7)

To see literary form as a type of social work, one with its own ethics and demands, gives the realists a unique place in American literature within their own ideological moments. The role of Ideology in Kaplan’s work, which she defines as “those unspoken collective understandings, conventions, stories and cultural practices that uphold systems of power” (6),  is paramount to her way of reading realist texts. She explains that due to the large scale industrialism and expansions of the cities, realist novels attempted to “engage in an enormous act of construction to organize, re-form, and control the social world” and would “attempt to regulate conflict in the narrative construction of common ground among classes both to efface and reinscribe social histories” (10). Realism then is not seen as a failed attempt to dissect and tear apart ideological formations of class in its own time, but rather, as an attempt to construct social forms.

Her chapters on William Dean Howells expand on her argument that Howells’ work should be seen as an attempt to construct new social forms, showing that his work often attempts to resist the advertising and artificial narratives of mass media, while at the same time, to keep from writing in a form for elites. It is the struggle between these two forms that Howells settles on realism as a form that denies popular romance, which “turns literature into a consumer item and reading into an act of consumption” (17), and elitism. For Kaplan, “the major work of the realistic narrative is to construct a homogenous and coherent social reality by conquering the fictional qualities of middle-class life and by controlling the specter of class conflict which threatens to puncture this vision of a unified social totality” (21). Howells creates a “common realm,” where classes and individuals are able to see their conflicts within a bigger picture. In other words, the project of realism for Howells is “to manage social difference through representation” (30). He does this by representing the cityscape as a place attempting to forge “common possession” but cannot deny the dispossession that it enacts onto its citizens, and through his rigorous details of “useless knowledge,” to show how tenuous the boundaries are between class exclusions.

Kaplan’s work on Edith Wharton is perhaps the most illuminating as well as the most contentious. Her argument is that, while Wharton’s work is often seen as the precursor to a type of “Women’s writing” that reflects domesticity and the home, for Kaplan, Wharton’s writing is in fact an “effort to write herself out of the private domestic sphere and to inscribe a public identity in the marketplace” (67). Wharton seeks not a separate sphere, but becomes an apprentice to realism, and rather than just being feminine “women’s writing,” her work “undermines those boundaries between feminine and masculine, private and public” (67). As she despised the elites of New York City for their leisure and fear of work, Wharton saw her own writing as a type of work, and followed a rigorous schedule to keep up with it.  She desired for her authorship to be seen as professional, and constantly had to “grapple with the precedent of women novelists who ventured into the market only to reinforce their place at home” (72). In other words, Wharton struggled with the tradition of women’s writing rather than taking a firm place in it. This shows in Kaplan’s analysis of House of Mirth, which has traditionally been seen as a type of “novel of manners.” Breaking with this tradition, Kaplan shows how House of Mirth not only exposes the corruption and superficiality of the upper class, but defines them in relation to the lower class, since “to legitimate their privilege, the upper class cannot afford to seclude itself in a private sphere, but depends upon displaying itself before the gaping mob” (90). Wharton problematizes the sphere of the home by showing its dependency on being visible by the mob through acts of conspicuous consumption.  By revealing their source of power, Wharton participates in changing forms of class power.

Finally, Kaplan’s section on Theodore Drieser solidifies her argument by identifying Sister Carrie as an engagement with the conspicuous consumption of Wharton,  in an attempt to construct new social forms. Kaplan argues that: “the critical opposition associating sentimentalism with consumption and desire, and realism with work and deprivation, is already generated by the narrative strategies of Sister Carrie, as a way of imagining and managing the contradictions of a burgeoning consumer society” (143).  Conspicuous consumption plays a tragic role in Drieser’s novel, as “the characters seem to be in pursuit of something that commodities promise but never quite deliver, because they seek in things around them an image of themselves” (148). Here the work of the novel seems similar to Wharton’s and Howell’s, in that Drieser’s text not merely comments on consumption, but enables a radical critique of commodities as ways of promising identity and social groups. For Drieser, it is the workplace and work that acts as “the site of those power relations which fuel the desire for change that commodities promise but never fully realize” (151).

Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire

Von Eschen, Penny M. Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.


Help her, China!

Help her, Dark People, who half-shared her slavery’

Who knows the depths of her sorrow and humiliation’

Help her, not in Charity

_ W.E.B. Du Bois, I Sing to China


The African American anticolonial movements from the 1930s to 1950s, which Penny M. Von Eschen traces in her book, Race Against Empire, serve to expose the antithetical nature of “blackness” to American national belonging by turning towards a belonging in the world to black diasporas, to colonized subjects, and to the struggling proletariats world-wide. The racialized domination and violence by the West that is experienced by these groups create a feeling of global solidarity. Yet in Von Eschen, this solidarity never seems to manifest into a transnational political project with effective power. The challenges brought to anticolonial politics by the suppression of free speech, the accusations of Marxist influence during the McCarthy era, the changing racial ideologies in the United States and the potent ideological force of nationalism during World War II and its aftermath in the Truman Doctrine, stymie and eventually nullify the movement. Though it may seem that the turn towards a racial globality is ultimately defeated by the forces of nationalism and patriotism, as manifest in the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, we can also read Von Eschen’s book as an expose’ of the systemic contradictions within anticolonial discourse as World War II and American hegemony shift the meaning of globality and race.

Perhaps the black intellectual most associated with the global turn in racial belonging is W.E.B. Du Bois, whose poem I Sing to China begins this response paper. This poem is cited frequently to galvanize afro-asian support, yet its ironies undergo just as frequent scrutiny, as China’s oppression throughout much of the first half of the 20th Century was not in the trials of the boxers, but in casting off Japanese imperialism in the second Sino-Japanese war and World War II. Von Escher is curiously silent on this issue, as well as the general pitfalls that threaten non-alignment and racial solidarity, to be blunt: the intra-conflict among oppressed peoples. In a movement that promotes racial solidarity, how did the anticolonial movement respond to such intra-conflicts among Asians or Africans whose common enemy was not imperial Europe, but each other? I find the example of Japan especially pertinent on this issue, since Du Bois himself, as many African Americans in his time, was supportive of Japan for casting off the colonial powers from Asia in the name of Asian solidarity, though this seemingly benevolent phenomenon ended in a grab for resources, massacres and the trials of WWII. How did the anticolonial movements deal with this disjuncture? Or are these historical moments just as crucial to understanding the decline of anticolonialism as is understanding the effects of American nationalism?

The appeal to the Indian homeland by diasporic Indians living in South Africa served as a model for Black Americans to appeal to diasporic blacks world-wide, reaffirming membership in a global community with Africa as its ballast. The Indian question and events like it caused tremors in racial formation worldwide, leading black intellectuals like Du Bois to believe that the problem of the color line was overtly a global problem. In his essay “The Souls of White folk” in Darkwater, his examples of racialized oppression range world-wide, from China to India to Africa to Mexico and South America. Yet the oppressors in all of his cases are “white folk,” and even when confronted with the issue of Japan, Du Bois posits that its eventual overthrow was due to the “peril of such ‘yellow’ presumption” to be white. Such an outcome is further extrapolated in his novel, Dark Princess: A Romance, where the Indian Princess Kautilya, who has assisted in organizing a conference that would resemble Bandung, falls in love with a Black American, Matthew Towns, and after many trials and tribulations, bears his son. The joining of the mytho-poetic Indian princess and the Black American Matthew is romantically idealized to the extreme, as their love affair throughout the novel seems to resemble purity, genuine feminization and fecundity, and a common political alignment/enlightenment that serves to awaken their political consciousness for “the Council of the Darker Peoples of the World,” (the name of the conference the princess has come to participate in). Furthermore, according to Alys Weinbaum, for Du Bois, this child represents “a baby cast as the messiah of a new world in which Pan-Asia and Pan-Africa are united in common cause against white world domination” (204). This analysis leads me to my second question: what role does Orientalism and idealism play in these anticolonial movements?  The romantic form of global solidarity against oppression that we find in Du Bois’ novel does not seem limited to the realm of fiction and literary scholarship, but seems related to the weakening of the anticolonial movements. With the formality of being an organization centered on education, the ideological background of the CAA and its intellectuals seem tantamount to discovering the internal problems that may have led to its decline.

While seemingly domestic in their outlook, the intellectuals who came after the anticolonial movements also deserve further inquiry. What was to gain by the radical shift towards domestic policy rather than global solidarity? The hijacking of the Bandung conference by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who, as Von Escher informs us, was known for “saving” the conference from communist exploitation of the color question, appears as an attempt to elide international criticism of American domestic policy. Men like Powell appear adamant to protect the United States’ domestic reputation with race, and this appearance leads me to my third question: Can the turn towards a more domestic politics during the cold war also be seen as a strategic revitalization of civil rights politics in threatening to expose the oppression of Black Americans to the global public sphere, thereby contradicting first-world propaganda? In other words, what were the strategic advantages of this shift?

Finally, my last question attempts to synthesize all of the above. If the oscillation from transnational to national civil rights politics in the time period that Von Escher is dealing with can be said to have been contingent on historical factors such as World War II, American nationalism, etc., where do we stand, in the contemporary era, for a politics of racial globality and what George Stiglitz calls “inter-ethnic anti-racism”? What external/internal factors are being faced now, for which Escher’s book may elucidate possible strategies to overcome?

Ayn Rand’s The Voice of Reason

Rand, Ayn, Leonard Peikoff, and Peter Schwartz. The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought. The Ayn Rand library, vol. V. New York: Meridian Book, 1990.

Rand pushes for a political economy based solely on merit (meritocracy), rather than one based on the needs of others, where a socially “desirable” distribution of wealth is put into effect, despite the abilities of those who are being usurped, and the inability of the looters.

Ayn Rand is quite interesting for capturing the forerunners of American neoliberal ideology. She writes against racism, which she sees as a reversion to tribalism, the product of irrationalism and collectivism. The choice of the “tribe” of race is entirely arbitrary when one considers the merits of a “racial heritage,” that simply because this ethnicity did exist, somehow once existing qualifies it to its own system of morality, put on an equal plane with every other morality, even those values derived from logic.

To Rand, ethnicity is worse than racism, because it denotes both this arbitrary alliance, as well as a sterile tradition–the utter horror of a way of living that does not change from generation to generation.

“Conformity to a racist tradition does not constitute a human identity. Just as racism provides a pseudo-self-esteem for men who have not earned an authentic one, so their hysterical loyalty to their own dialect serves a similar function: it provides a pretense at “collective self esteem”.

To Rand, bigotry is evil, but so is constituting one’s self identity with a racial group, and therefore acting in the caricature that bigotry believes envelops all beings of a single race. To Rand, The United States is the archenemy and the destroyer of ethnicity.

It is the same with racial quotas, where if a young man is barred from school or a job because the quota of his race is filled, then he is barred by the reason of his race and no other. Telling him that, as in identity politics, his “representatives” will speak in his name, simply because they share the same race, to Rand, adds insult to injustice. Such systems she sees as racist, in that their basic assumption is that a select number of a race can speak for the race as a whole.

Rand also sees in Multiculturalism a reversal to Soviet Russia (and modern China), where ethnicities are broken up into a number of racially different states, each with its own language, folk songs, commemorative postage stamps, yet this is only flattery and poses no danger to the rulers, but serves to distract the public from the fact that the state itself allows no ideological diversity under its oppressive regime. The idea of “ethnic collectivity” is merely a distraction from the bigger picture, and serves to complete the identities of those willing to live under oppression.

Finally, Rand’s followers combat the inflation of her ideas with Libertarianism, which has no values except freedom, and therefore sees the state as an arbiter of truth that must be brought to its knees. Rand wants to separate economy and state, and be satisfied with a limited government, while Libertarians want the government to take a backseat to absolutely every cultural institution and property value, as in the roads, and wants no constraints on their behavior, the opposite of what Ayn Rand’s morality seeks to achieve.

I need a break from Rand, back to the realms she considers irrational. Oh well.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

What happens to Planet Earth, when the Super Saiyajin’s leave it to its destroyers?

That’s pretty much the plot of this epic by Ayn Rand. For being a novel of 1,100 pages, it only covers a couple years, and skips about most of the time in between. Most of the pages are taken up by philosophical digressions by its key characters, who are all kinds of variations on the theme of “greatness”. John Galt, one of the novel’s many heroes, speaks for about fifty pages straight.

But the words express a philosophy (as well as a method) that cannot be found from any other writer. Ayn Rand is such an antipode to proletariat writing that to read her really changes one’s perspective–on selfishness, altruism, and economics.

The text is about the producers of America, going to form their own colony during a dystopian nightmare of governmental regulations. Here Rand is similar to Sinclair Lewis in his novel “It Can’t Happen Here.” Both are about individualists during a dystopian America, who refuse to go along with the idiotic masses, and instead stick to their own logical and moral systems despite the irrationality plaguing the nation. The American dystopias are similar in both of these novels, because they both rely on the philosophy that great men must serve “the people,” and that the industrialists and businessmen must give their businesses to “the people,” as in modern communism.

Both Lewis and Rand write warnings to the United States about the infection of altruistic thought, of regulating the economy through the state. To these Americanists, the United States was plagued with notions of regulation by the state from Lewis’ 1930s to Rands 1960s. With the Reagan and Bush era, de-regulation became the norm, and now we are, apparently, living in an individualist economy based on merit.

Yet Rand’s warning, unlike Lewis’, is far more concerned with the philosophy of the nation and its intellectuals, not the political realm itself. In Atlas Shrugged, the real war is not between the industrialists and the politicians, but between one professor of Reason, and another professor who has “forsaken his reason,” and who believes that mankind cannot live by their own logic because they are too stupid–he is the cynic.

The Cynic has no hope in the individual ability of man, so he concludes that the great men must support the weak. All men are then entitled to Freedom, but to the Cynic, freedom means: freedom to sleep safely, freedom to eat, freedom to a job. But the blindspot for Rand, of course, is that if everyone has the right to food and a job, while doing no labor, from whom will they get their food, their jobs?

The victims, to Rand, become the producers, who by regulations from the state, must produce for people who do nothing, who do not think, and who justify their “looting” of other people’s achievements by the fact that they need food, a job, a place to sleep. To Rand, need justifies nothing. Everybody needs food and a job, but only those who are able–who have the merit–can get it, those who cannot, must either rely on charity or goodwill, but must never, under any circumstances, demand that those who produce be obligated to give them hand-outs.

Darwinian social theory is never mentioned throughout the text, but as a survival of the fittest through capitalism, it’s hard to imagine why she sees herself as modern and the “needs”-based distribution as primitive.

Ayn Rand has had philosophical meaning in the lives of many industrialists and businessmen, including Ron Paul. Hollywood is in the process of making a movie out of this text (which should be a canonical text), produced by people influenced by Ayn Rand, and starring Angelina Jolie, probably the most famous adherent to Randian philosophy.

Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1943.


Rereleased in 1999 as “Fountainhead: an American novel”, always one of the best selling classics on, and now structuring the backbone of the new neo-conservative party, Fountainhead is an interesting, didactic, lucid and entertaining exegesis on “man as he should be”. Her conception of this modern man is similar to Nietzsche’s ubermenschen, if not the exact same. The kind of man who does not remember the wrongs made against him, but simply reacts and moves toward the future, a man of vision who does not seek other for validation, appreciation, application, faculty, manipulation, or even consent. He, in this case Howard Roark, is set up to see people as ends to themselves, rather than the means to an end.

Like in much of sci-fi, these characters are supposed to be taken as concepts, as a vision of what man could become, not what man is–so obviously they’re not going to be “realistic” in the way most novels would perceive of them.

This book is also about architecture.

I disagree with almost all of Rand’s philosophy, but I’ve felt that getting a sense for her ethics is extremely useful for tracing the vigorous transformations and cultural input Rand has had on modern neo-conservatism as well as neoliberalism. This book is her ethical treatise, and it takes a some genuine mind of integrity to envision it with finesse. Rand is taboo among many intelligentsia, for good reason, though the blame doesn’t lie completely on Rand’s side. Her conceptions of “egotism” and “altruism” are certainly stark concepts, and yet, since this book is not commonly taken seriously, many of the intelligentsia don’t know how to properly reject her claims, or the claims of contemporary neo-liberal thought.

Egotism is blatant self-interest, with the ethical boundary that everyone is devoted to the same self-interest. To be egotistical is to know what lies behind the “I” when saying, “I will do X” or “I will buy X”. Self-interest in a person capable of creativity, of vision, self-respect and integrity.

The problem with Rand’s approach is a just and accurate problem, though again, I doubt most people who critique Rand have read this book. The problem is the black/white fallacy, she presents altruism and egotism as two extremes that one must choose from. After reading the book, this “problem” doesn’t seem that valid. Of course, the “visionary” ubermenschen is extremely an egotist, while the “villian” is extremely “altruistic,” but the entire point of the book is that these terms are mere ideological constructions, since no character in the book is altruistic at all, but merely uses the guise of altruism for their own “egotistical” means. This is egotism in the traditional sense. In the Randian sense, the true egotist could never wear a guise. He respects himself too much to sell his own integrity. “egotism” in the Randian sense, seems more similar to “self-respect” than selfishness.