When You Have to Pay People to Teach and to Read a Book: A Bank Chairman’s Deep-Pocketed Promotion of Atlas Shrugged

In my previous post, I discussed James McNair’s article on the proposed multi-million-dollar gift by Koch Foundation and Poppa John’s CEO John Schnatter to the University of Louisville [http://kycir.org/2014/12/09/university-of-louisville-set-to-get-millions-from-charles-koch-foundation-and-papa-johns-ceo/].

That article includes the following paragraph:

“The Koch-Schnatter gift would not be the first to expand free-markets instruction at the University of Louisville. Six years ago, BB&T Bank gave the university $1 million to bankroll a professorship in free enterprise and a new course, then called ‘The Moral Foundations of Capitalism,’ drawing in part from the philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand. The course is now called ‘Capitalism and Economic Freedom.’ Students in the class receive a free copy of Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.”

The second link in that paragraph is to an article written by Elizabeth Kramer for WFPL News, “Grants Get Ayn Rand’s Ideas into Kentucky Universities.” The article was published in November 2009; so, the information that it provides is a half-decade old.
Even so, the information that it does contain is rather astonishing:

“[BB&T Bank Chairman] Allison’s visit [to the university of Louisville] came a year after the college announced it would receive a $1 million grant from the BB&T Charitable Foundation to offer a course and other events focused on capitalism and including Rand’s philosophy. It also went to purchase copies of Rand’s opus—Atlas Shrugged for [all students enrolled in junior-level economics courses at the university].”

“Since 2005, BB&T has given about $6 million to some 60 schools to endow teaching positions and require including Rand’s ideas in courses—sometimes in economics; other times in philosophy. The schools include Duke UniversityUniversity of Texas at Austin and Kentucky’s Murray State University. It received $1 million this year and now offers economics and communications courses that include Rand.

“Some critics say these grants are part of an ideological campaign that undermines academic freedom. In 2006, North Carolina’s Meredith College turned down BB&T money after some faculty objected.”

In 2011, Mervyn F. Bendle contributed the article “Did Atlas Shrug?: Ayn Rand and Philosophy as a One-Party State” to Quadrant Magazine, an Australian periodical founded in 1956. Its two original editors were associated with the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom, an offshoot of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, one of the groups funded by the C.I.A. to provide Far Right alternatives to communist propaganda. Quadrant Magazine’s stated aim has been to expose and to excoriate “unthinking Leftism, or polirical correctness, and its ‘smelly little orthodoxies.’” So it is hardly a source that has any pretense to providing “fair and balanced reporting.”

Nonetheless, Bendle’s article provides a fairly thorough and straightforward overview of the response to Ayn Rand’s works, as well as her philosophy, her public persona, and her difficult personality. Bendle argues that “a ferocious willfulness and a compulsion towards absolutism lurked within Rand’s thinking, vitiating her philosophy and driving the emotionally and intellectually suffocating cult that surrounded Rand and dissipated her impact, ultimately consuming her and all those closest to her.” In effect, Bendle is trying to separate what is hardest to swallow in Rand from what he finds most attractive. He closes the essay:

“And on that plane she was supreme, a genius at her craft. Rand herself, along with her two great novels, The Fountainhead and especially Atlas Shrugged, were great and singular cultural phenomena. She offered a powerful and unique vision, an empowering myth that has great appeal to people who feel stifled by an unresponsive, bureaucratic and un-heroic world, a world where irrationality and dishonesty reign, where sycophancy trumps talent, where initiative is punished, where creativity and imagination are de-valued or exploited by those who lack both, and where the masses allow themselves to be manipulated by ‘leaders’ unworthy of the name. For people despairing at such a dystopia, Rand offered, in her own public persona and in her novels, both an exemplar and an escape. The enduring popularity of Atlas Shrugged is a measure of how much both of these are still required.”

The Far Right points to the totalitarian regimes that have called themselves communist as damning illustration of what Marxism inevitably leads to. But it is blind to the reality that the sort of extreme capitalism that it advocates has just as inevitably led its own totalitarian extremes. Whenever a relative few, self-selected powerful people control most of the economic and political power, they self-servingly redefine the culture to justify their power at the expense of everyone else. Through this cultural control, they can temporarily convince the populations of their nations or empires that their ideological convictions are critically important, but ultimately the ideology makes no difference whatsoever in the quality of life enjoyed by most of those populations. A meaningful, fully functional democracy in which most of the population is politically engaged, economically viable, and culturally dynamic is the only real bulwark against absolutism.

In any case, what interests me most about Bendle’s article are the following two passages.

First, he provides this overview of the reviews of Atlas Shrugged: “with few exceptions, the reviews ‘were not merely critical, they were hateful and dishonest’ (Heller, p. 282). There were references to Hitler and dictatorships, immorality and greed, with the New York Times reviewer declaring that although Rand ‘proclaims her love of life, it seems clear that the book is written out of hate,’ that it was ‘a demonstrative act rather than a literary novel,’ and a Nietzschean product of a demonic will ‘to crush the enemies of truth.’ Time wondered: ‘Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare?’ In the Los Angeles Times, the chief critic observed that ‘it would be hard to find [another] such display of grotesque eccentricity outside an insane asylum.’ The New Yorker reflected on the novel’s graphic depiction of the vengeance wrought on an ungrateful society by radically disaffected corporate entrepreneurs, concluding that by the end ‘the globe’s two billion or so incompetents, having starved to death, [will] know better than to fool around with Businessmen’ (Heller, pp. 282–284).”

Bendle’s main argument against the reviews is to point to the great popularity of the book and the ways in which its popularity was linked to growing dissatisfaction with “big government” and uneven economic growth in the second half of the 20th century.

Of course, one can argue that some very highly regarded works have not been initially given their due by critics, but the flip side of that truism, that many truly dreadful books have been major bestsellers.

My own feeling is much closer to that of the reviewers: that is, this is dreadful philosophy presented as a simplistic fictional narrative because it would be impossible to find a factual illustration that would not be absolutely chilling.That it appeals to masses of people like “Joe the Plumber” and to a few politically powerful and/or ultra-wealthy individuals who would find it much easier to operate in a world full of “Joe the Plumbers” does not make it a good book—never mind anything close to a Great Book.

The second passage in Bendle’s article that I think is especially worth quoting is the following:

“According to Chambers, Rand aspired not to liberty but to an authoritarian state run by a privileged, self-selecting technocratic elite, ruling by diktat and answerable only to itself. In Rand’s world ordinary people are relegated to a profoundly subordinate status, trapped there by their cowardice, lack of ingenuity, and unacknowledged and presumptuous dependency. Above all, they are incapable of recognizing the true worth of the elite of Übermenschen that deign to live among them, but who could withdraw at any moment—as the novel demonstrates—leaving the intolerable and ungrateful plebs to their well-deserved fate. The uncompromising libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises found this a refreshing feature of the book, commending Rand for possessing ‘the courage to tell the masses what no politician [has] told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you’ (Heller, p. 283).

“Chambers, in contrast, was appalled: ‘Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal . . . It consistently mistakes raw force for strength.’ Frighteningly, ‘it supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated [and so] from almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard . . . commanding: “To a gas chamber—go!”’ (Nash, p. 157). Other conservative intellectuals agreed. Russell Kirk described Objectivism as an ‘inverted religion’ and denied that material success was ‘the whole aim of existence,’ as he took Rand to be claiming. Frank Meyer condemned her ‘calculated cruelties,’ and ‘arid subhuman image of man,’ while Garry Wills pointed out that John Galt’s repudiation of all obligations to his fellow man attacked the foundations of conservative theory (Nash, pp. 157–158).”

Yes, Whitaker Chambers–the living and breathing proof of the communist infiltration of the American government and American life, the self-presented justification for the Red Scare, the darling of the National Review and of every other Far Right publication and foundation of the Cold War period—that guy found Atlas Shrugged philosophically so simplistic and extreme in its conception as to be repulsive.

Perhaps that in itself explains why the chairman of BB&T Bank has been paying universities millions of dollars to have the book included as required reading in their courses and to provide free copies to their students. But then one would have to put aside the obvious inconsistency in their feeling compelled to pay people to read a book that they assert is already one of the most widely read and admired books of its time: “Within five years it had sold over a million copies, and continued to average sales of 150,000 copies a year for decades until sales increased sharply in recent years. It has also been translated into seventeen languages (including Chinese!). In one poll, Atlas Shrugged was ranked second only to the Bible as the book that had most influenced readers’ lives; while in another, it and The Fountainhead were ranked first and second in a list of the best 100 novels of the twentieth century, with Rand’s other two novels, We the Living and Anthem, also in the top ten. (A similar list, chosen by literary critics, found no room for any of Rand’s books.)” (Oh, how wonderful literature might be if not for those damned critics, those experts.)

Nonetheless, I’d like to add, as a sort of by-the-by rhetorical aside, that while subjugating Germany and then much of Europe, Hitler proved himself a ruthless capitalist in amassing tremendous personal wealth, and one of the most dependable sources of his income was the royalties from the sales of Mein Kampf, which was eventually required by law to be one of the gifts at weddings and on other significant occasions.

By pointing this out, I am not suggesting that anyone promoting Rand or her book is necessarily a Nazi. Rather, I am simply trying to highlight, with the aid of the analogy, just how very paradoxical it seems that the teaching and the reading of a book that celebrates extreme capitalism needs to be promoted with millions of dollars of corporate subsidies.

In fact, I can’t help but think that that sort of approach to promoting the book seems much more akin to the state-subsidized distribution of Mao’s Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution.

 

 

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