“In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”
The voice behind the words is guttural, the accent — Russian — thick; raspy, yet confident in its bold pronouncements. I turn up the volume of the tape recorder and feel my chest tighten and my heart race a bit.
I am lying on my back on the floor with both hands clasped behind my neck. The blue and white abstract patterned tiles are cold and relieve some of the all-permeating heat of the city. I am in the sunny bedroom of my best friend, Paula. This is Kingston, Jamaica. It is April 1985, four months before I am to leave for the United States of America where I intend to attend college and become a novelist. It is also where I intend to spend the rest of my life. It is not the country of my birth; but I intend to adopt it as the country of my choice because, fundamentally, I believe in what it stands for and, more important, for the stupendous achievements I know I can accomplish there.
I am 20 years old.
I have been invited by my friend to listen to a woman she called the most controversial novelist and philosopher of the 20th century, one of its most loved and one of its most vilified, excoriated and misrepresented scions of intellectual thought. She was a maverick; a woman ahead of her time who created fictional heroes who defied and flouted every conventional moral code in the world, created their own and not only survived, but flourished and found happiness as a result of it. She had dared to, in her philosophical system, challenge 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian morality and its concomitant altruistic ethos. Her books had sold in the millions yet she was reviled by many academics and literary critics. My friend had not mentioned anything more about this woman. She summoned me to simply listen to a provocative lecture by a genius of the intellect; a nameless phenomenon whose book, “Atlas Shrugged,” was, she declared, the most important book in the lives of people. I remembered smiling, thinking this was pure unadulterated hyperbole. Surely, I would have heard of this woman if such was the case! But in 1991, a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club did indeed confirm categorically that Rand’s magnum opus, ”Atlas Shrugged” ranked as the most influential book in the lives of people second only to the Bible. The book has sold in excess of 8 million copies — the highest-ranking sales of any book by any philosopher in the history of humankind.
Propping myself on my elbows, and feeling somewhat flummoxed and disoriented by the sheer logic and force of her arguments but, feeling more vitality and excitement than I had ever felt before I asked:
“Who the hell is this woman?”
My friend, sitting imperiously in an armchair across the room, crossed her legs and, with a barely discernible condescending smile, said:
“Her name is Ayn Rand. And you really ought to get to know her.”
She rose from her seat, retrieved six books written by Ayn Rand from a small shelf beside her bed, handed them to me and told me to go home and begin the assignment that, she promised me, would change my life.
“Don’t come back until you have read them all. Then we can talk!”
In the ensuing months before I left Jamaica I read the majority of Rand’s oeuvre starting with the novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” then turned to her nonfiction books, which conceptually and systematically delineated her philosophy of Objectivism: a comprehensive, interlocking system of thought Rand called: “A Philosophy for Living on Earth.”
I had never felt entirely comfortable growing up in Jamaica. The religious mysticism that permeated the culture was at odds with my growing atheism and I was suspicious of the justification given in the Catholic school in which I was educated for accepting on faith the edicts, precepts, tenets and dogmas promulgated by the church. I was expelled from class for a day in my elite private high school for actually suggesting, in a religious education class, that it was not scientifically possible for the Virgin Mary to have conceived of Christ without having had sex with her husband, Joseph. God, I had submitted, was a surrogate father for Joseph’s child; a surrogate who would grant legitimacy to the claims made by Christ that he was indeed the Son of God and, a fortiori, confer the imprimatur of truth and infallibility vis-à-vis the outrageous claims he had made.
To make matters worse, I also declared that there was no such thing as Original Sin. If there was, then it was committed by God who must have either raped Eve or seduced her into having children. Incest committed by God against his created child, Eve, was the biggest coverup in the recorded history of mankind. Mankind was the scapegoat for God’s lapse in judgment or weakness of will; Jesus, the long-suffering martyr who, clearly, had been obviously born with an identity crisis, would save the unthinking masses from some unearned guilt they had incurred long ago because Eve and Adam had steadfastly refused to exist in a state of infantilism and ignorance and had sought wisdom and knowledge via some serpent who had encouraged them to simply act in accordance with their nature as human beings and seek knowledge, perception, understanding and moral independence. I decided to add some humor to it all: Mary was born sort of poor, no? She had had it with slumming down with Joseph, her socially low-on-the-totem-pole husband by aspiring to godhead. If God was the father of her child, then she would be elevated to the level of a venerated goddess.
Half the class laughed uproariously; the other half shrank and sank deep into their seats in complete incredulity and horror. My teacher, a handsome Irish-American priest, pointed to the door and wordlessly commanded me to leave the class.
God help me in this country, I remembered thinking.
I was 12 years old.
I also knew I was gay, and growing up in the most homophobic culture in the world, I had absolutely no intellectual ammunition to fight the conventional and religiously inflected sexual mores that buttressed the arguments against homosexuality so endemic to Jamaican culture. I could not understand why being Jamaican — an ascriptive identity I inherited through an accident of birth — assigned me a to group identity I shared with people with whom I had little in common, save the same nationality.
Ayn Rand makes it very clear in her philosophical system that the attributes of an individual qua individual, his values that he has achieved and integrated in his character and that give him his moral identity along with his commitment to the absolutism of reason, are what he ought to value in his life — not the coveted glory wrought from achievements gained by individuals from his groups who have created something substantial of their own. When one finds oneself riding on the social prestige of others’ achievements, then one is a moral parasite. Individual achievement does not translate into group achievement or group pride. The achievements of individuals, like their vices, have nothing to do with you. And if you think they do, then you are a biological collectivist; a moocher coasting on the efforts of others’ achievements while failing to contribute anything of your own. As opposed to moral ambitiousness — a crucial tenet of Rand’s philosophy — you become a walking practitioner of moral laziness and decrepitude. You equate being the beneficiary of some phenomenon with being its benefactor because you share some tribal ancestral affiliation with the original creator.
Being gay was nothing to be proud of. It was nothing to be ashamed of either. The identity was morally neutral; one ensconced in the larger domain of how one lived one’s life as a human being. From Rand’s philosophy, regardless of her personal opinion of homosexuality, I conjectured that if I were to tell her that I was gay that (regardless of her own private subjective musings) the only rational answer she could give regarding gay sex or any sex for that matter was: It had better be good. So long as I was not violating another person’s right through consensual sex with him, then the issue of gay sex had to be morally irrelevant. If not, then it would be parasitic on religious moral pieties. Her philosophy, if consistently applied, would have to see sexual orientation as morally neutral. One could not judge the morality of a gay person just on the basis of his or her orientation. One would have to look at the context of that person’s life; to see how he or she functioned as a human being qua human being; to see how he or she — within the paradigmatic configurations of sexual orientation — behaved sexually: Was one promiscuous; did one remain faithful to the values of monogamy and honesty if such were the terms of one’s spousal contract with another; did one behave sexually like a farm animal, or did one choose sexual partners who represented one’s highest values?
The logical application of her theory of sex eased the psychological pain I felt over being gay in a society in which homosexuality was and continues to be criminalized. Ayn Rand was and is — through her propagation of individual rights, of the sovereignty and inviolable right of the individual to choose for himself a rational course for his own happiness — a most stalwart emancipator of gay oppression. The state had no business criminalizing what acts persons performed sexually in the privacy of their bedrooms. And since I did not and am yet to find an official Objectivist theory of homosexuality and why it could or should be construed as immoral, Ayn Rand, in those early years of tortured agony over my sexual orientation, provided me with a philosophical framework and intellectual ammunition within which to carve out, not a politicized gay identity, but one simply as an individual who happened to be gay. I did not back then, nor do I now politicize my sexual orientation. It belongs to me and, quite frankly, it is nobody’s business unless I choose to make it so. My life belonged to me and no one else. Since an objective theory of sex — short of being parasitic on religious morality — could not objectively show me how loving another man with all my heart and how being loyal and dedicated to him was inimical to my long-term rational happiness, I concluded that if Rand’s philosophy was to be consistently rational, then it could not find homosexuality immoral. Sexual orientation, I concluded, was a morally neutral fact of one’s life as was sex before marriage among caring and committed lovers.
* * *
On Aug. 11, 1985, at the age of 20, I boarded an Air Jamaica aircraft bound for Atlanta. Clutching the hand of my 72-year-old grandmother a little nervously, I was headed for what I still believe to be the greatest country on earth: the United States of America. Armed with $120, big dreams for my life and the love of my family, I blew a kiss to the throngs of onlookers in the old rundown wavers gallery who were waving crazily at everybody and nobody in particular — a hangover from the old colonial era — and never once looked back.
I recall that day as being the first day of my life. I recall that aside from holding the hand of my glamorous grandmother decked out in pearls, high heels and a silk dress, that I was holding, more tightly, a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.
Four and a half hours later, I, a newly minted legal immigrant, but feeling like some strange nocturnal creature seeing light for the first time, shielded my face against the harsh sunlight of the Atlanta skies with one hand and, with the other, protectively shielded my grandmother’s slightly perspiring neck although, really, there was nothing to protect it from. Still, I used my sturdy copy of “Atlas Shrugged” to shield the back of her sensitive neck.
My intellectual sensibilities were forged in the crucibles of a collapsing empire and the emergence of an independent nation. When my father was born, his father, a pioneer in the independence movement, was being held in a British concentration camp for being an insurgent and a hard-line communist.
As a child sitting at the feet of my paternal grandfather, a trade unionist, political journalist and intellectual engagé of the highest order, I learned that ideas were a matter of life and death. He was almost killed for his.
Ideas were exchanged against the backdrop of tumultuous politics, states of emergency, roadblocks and political arrests. They were used satirically among interlocutors who had been punished for their convictions to parody their persecutors and prosecutors. Although any among them could claim legitimate victimization, one would never know it as their words delectably flowed from their lips amid a cacophony of raucous laughter. The air, laced with the smell of tobacco, aftershave and the perfume of intellectual ladies dressed in pearls and satin frocks who elucidated their husbands’ points and made better points of their own between long inhales of cigarettes held in sleek silver and black holders, was also impregnated with the indelible smell of the sea, although from where we sat, only the infamous looming Blue Mountains that once shielded rebellious slaves who had escaped after murdering their masters could be seen, and not the sea. But a discussion of ideas and their unmistakable connection to human lives was always complemented with mouthfuls of steaming rice and peas cooked in coconut milk, fried sweet plantains, and crispy red snapper so soft it dissolved right there on your tongue as a thought came to mind. Oh, the commingled joys of eating and thinking: the food ministering to the mind and its thinking, the mind and its thinking aided by a satisfied palate. It never mattered whether it was the abstract formulations of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Wole Soyinka, Julius Nyerere, John Maynard Keynes, Ludwig Von Mises, Max Weber, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, or a formal analysis of elocution that was under discussion. Ideas, deeply experienced in my body as a visceral human animal, were human, all too human for me.
But given the political commitments of my family the introduction of Ayn Rand into my life as an antidote to their political values was regarded as an aberration.
* * *
In the year before I emigrated I was given the unique opportunity to work as a political journalist at the same newspaper that my grandfather and his father had toiled at for decades. It confirmed what I had observed while growing up in that volatile island nation: that you indeed could be killed for your ideas and convictions, and that if you were an intellectual and were not prepared to die for or, more important, live for those convictions, then your life was a fraud. At that newspaper, the Gleaner, I met fierce intellectuals. Self-taught men and women of the mind they were, and there was no breach between them and the people. That is, compared to today’s American intellectuals, who pen specialized academic works and rarely share their minds by writing for a broad readership, these intellectuals, some of whom were lecturers at the university and some of whom were full-time writers, were brilliant. Their brilliance shone in their prose; prose whose articulacy captured the elemental immediacy of the issues but was grounded in wisdom derived from a lifetime of experience and voracious reading in all spheres of human knowledge. They were not the voices of the amorphous mass but, instead, a representative of the individual who would accept or reject their ideas based on an appraisal of such ideas. And there were as many voices with as many gradations of viewpoints as there were people outside the newspaper to read them. They were the Thinking Man’s Intellectual.
My father, a writer and artist, told me before he collapsed into madness that artists and intellectuals were the voices of those who were capable of thinking but were unable to legally speak in their own names. They are perceptive creatures, he whispered into my 8-year-old ears. They sense the fears, the hopes, the aspirations and the unnamed traumas of a nation. But more important, they inspire hope by writing not only for their time, but also for the future.
The artist-intellectual (the two were, for him, beautifully combined) was not a mere gadfly upsetting conventional wisdom; he wasn’t just a transmission belt conveying a culture’s basic ideas to the general public. His was a sacred calling. He was a secular priest who, rather than towering above the masses, genuflected before any of them who could understand his vision of the heroic in the spirit of a simple child who held but one wish: that they would be able to take it and walk away with it. Yet, he was a fanatical socialist and a militant Zionist. Years later I learned that his father ended his memorable weekly radio show with a valediction for which he would be remembered for decades: Walk Good! – which meant: walk resolutely and steadfastly in the name of your moral convictions. My grandfather was a committed communist. As much as I loved my father and admired my grandfather I never once was tempted by their political philosophy. I admired their commitment and dedication to their principles, yet disliked enormously their politics. I was, from as far back as I could remember myself, a very defiant individualist who had little affinity for the masses. I hated crowds, groups and the vulgarity of most people who clung to group identities.
Throughout the years of unspeakable struggle in the United States, especially early on when after working two or three jobs to put myself through school I would write newspaper editorials at night to supplement my income, I held one absolute in my mind that was my spiritual ammunition against mental and physical exhaustion and despair at the state of our culture: that one day I would assume my rightful place in the pantheon among the Olympian pugilists, those vanguards of the American Mind.
It was Ayn Rand who had given me the audacity of that hope and possibility and later the radiant certainty that I could apply that absolute over a lifetime of a life lived to the fullest.
* * *
“Why do you like Ayn Rand?” a stranger asked me during my first year of college in the United States. He had observed me reading “The Virtue of Selfishness” during my lunch break from one of my jobs.
“She offers a rational and comprehensive guide to living on earth; she is a consummate hero worshiper which translates into living up to one’s highest potential and never compromising it by sacrificing the noblest in you to the lowest common denominator in others. Besides, she provides the perfect antidote to the soul-killing morality of altruism with which I grew up in my home and culture.”
“I liked her when I was young like you,” he offered. “Life is different now. One grows up.”
“Well, yes, you might have grown up; but have you outgrown the laws of nature which govern every human being’s life?” I asked.
“No, of course not.”
“Well, then you are governed by laws of nature as a human being, and one such law requires you to live by reason which is your only source of knowledge, your only guide to action and choice of your values. That’s Rand’s central premise. Second, since as a human being you have to live by your own efforts — if you live off the efforts of others and they withdraw their efforts you will starve to death — then, productive work is your noblest activity. “
He smiled patronizingly. Nevertheless, I pressed on.
“And since as a human being your self-preservation is an unassailable value, the most exalted manner in which your self-preservation manifests itself is through your rational happiness; therefore, the achievement of your own happiness is your highest moral purpose in life. If you attempt to place the happiness of others above your own, and if you place their self-interest above yours and need to serve others to justify your existence — then, you will simply die a spiritual death by failing to achieve self-esteem. You will be bled to death not in one apocalyptic blow but, rather, by thousands of tiny scratches, like a flea-infested dog who scratches himself for years, dying to rid himself of the parasitic invaders on his body and is found dead one morning by his owners. His body covered in ‘mysterious blood.’”
He seemed further amused at my enthusiasm and wished me luck in my literary and philosophical pursuits.
“No good luck is necessary,” I said, “only good premises,” echoing Ayn Rand’s own belief that it was the philosophical premises that undergirded one’s ideas that charted the rational course of one’s life as a human being.
What really makes us attracted to the ideas of others is as simple as understanding what draws us to certain human beings and not others: We are drawn, ideally, and if we are rational, to the extremes in others which we have denied in ourselves but which we desperately need to complete us as human beings. Ayn Rand was a philosophical extrovert par excellence. She was out there; meaning, she was always exploring the question not of what it meant to be a human being, but what it meant to live like a certain type of human being, one worthy of the title: man, which means in modern-day parlance — an individual of the highest order.
I grew up in the house of altruism. My mother made it very clear that as a single mother she had sacrificed her life for her children; that she had given up her own happiness, cashed in her entire retirement so that they could have the best education and, a fortiori, the best life possible in this world. If that was not enough, when I and my brother decided at the ages of 20 and 19, respectively, that we wanted to live in America, my altruistic mother gave up her entire career in banking, and, deciding that we were too young, came with us to make the journey easier.
Indeed, if we grant that the educational beginnings of a child’s life are at least partially instrumental in providing a foundation for the rudimentary skills required for future success, then, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my mother ,who financed a first-class education in the Caribbean’s top private school for me and my brother.
But this constant referral to sacrifice; this reminder to her children that she had given up everything for their sake; this implicit demand for recognition of this heroic gift on her part from us left an indelible wound in my soul. It made me feel that I had to pay her back, to pay for the sins of my worthless schizophrenic father who had never, could never and would never once contribute to the financial maintenance of his children. The virtue of sacrifice was a constant theme in the household of my mother and grandmother. Life was about sacrifice — giving up something of who you are or might want to be for a greater good. I remember thinking after having read Rand on the theme of sacrifice that since children never asked to be born and never brought themselves into this world that one of the moral tasks of parents was to subordinate their needs and desires to the welfare of their children. Since you brought them into the world if you were conscientious (which my mother certainly was!) it was your responsibility to provide them with the best means to survive independently of you and to give them skills that would make them flourish. The cincher was when I heard my mother once say to a group of friends : “If after all I have sacrificed for my children at least one of them cannot retire me by the time I reach the age of fifty-two, then I have not done something right.”
I felt a cold shudder and, I believe, that at the age of 16 when I first heard this declaration stated openly, that the concept of suicide was first forged in the darkest reaches of my mind.
The logical terminus of that statement was a life that could and should never belong to me.
But then I discovered Rand. The heart needs time to catch up with the insights of reason. It would take me another two decades to dehabituate myself from the morality of altruistic self-sacrifice and several clashes with my own mother who, when I announced I wanted to be a writer, informed me that I was going to be poor. She was genuinely concerned for my future. She knew the struggles and hardships writers faced. But I could not help thinking that I would be too poor to repay the sacrifices; too poor to be able to justify my existence to those who had extracted blood from their own souls to finance its up-keep; too poor to accept that since neither of my parents were able to accept the terms of my existence (I and my brother were, after all, accidents) that I would have to capitulate to the role handed to me by a society that demanded I be socially useful to it by being a lawyer or businessman — something lucrative and tangible from which they could extract the imagined investments they had made in my future. I felt instrumentalized, objectified and evacuated of my humanity — the sui generis, indubitable and nonreplicable phenomenon that I was would never be acknowledged.
I reread “The Fountainhead” and saw in the character of Howard Roark, a man who chose abject poverty over a lucrative career in architecture that would have demanded that he renounce and repudiate his artistic integrity by appeasing the mediocre vision of secondhanders who had never and would never care to discover their own originality and creative industry. He undertook menial jobs for 18 years and worked in a quarry as a construction worker. Life was to be lived on his terms and only his terms! Such, I decided, was to be the nature of mine.
Years later when, after being accepted into 25 law schools and tearing up the acceptance letters before my mother’s tearful eyes, I announced implacably that I would be a philosopher and writer, I knew that I had rationally ingested and applied Rand’s credo against self-sacrificial altruism. This was my life. I owned it. I would not have my soul bled to death defending it. I would live it rapturously, calmly and without defiance. I would not fight for what was rationally mine to do with as I pleased in as rational a manner as my nature as a human being required.
* * *
Three life-changing questions were posed to me recently that renewed my faith in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. A longtime friend, an African-American man, asked me if after having lived for almost 30 years in America if I had not grown weary of fighting racism. I was both surprised by the question and also compassionately understanding. He had grown up in the Deep South and had, indisputably, experienced both state-sanctioned and private racism. I placed my hand over his and said gently:
“I have never ever in my life sought to actively fight racism. I have simply adduced myself as evidence of its absolute stupidity and irrationality.”
He asked me what I meant and I immediately gave him the answer I thought Ayn Rand would have given him. Racism, I explained, is a form of psychosis — a break with reality. To judge and appraise someone solely on the basis of arbitrary and nonmoral attributes such as skin pigmentation and so-called racial identity is not only irrational and nonsensical it is evil. You never grant metaphysical importance to evil or the irrational because they are impotent. Period. Rand, I explained to him, had discounted the metaphysical value of that which could only destroy but never create.
He was not impressed. “Don’t you want the state to make it so that you would never have to even deal with racists?”
“No! Most certainly not,” I retorted, and felt deep anguish at the look of pain on his face.
“Short of a bloated totalitarian state in which I would rather die than live — this is impossible. The state cannot police tastes and attitudes. I want the state to protect my bodily integrity which is an absolute individual right I hold as does every other human being. I do not want any racist to inflict physical harm on me and the state’s job is to ensure that. But what the racist thinks privately of me is none of my business, and since his thoughts are so vile and irrational, to give them any deep significance would be to admit that he and what he thinks really matter to me in a way that, deep down inside, I can’t admit to. I cannot, and no person of self-esteem could. The state can and should simply keep out of my way because so much damage has been done to racial minorities by the state in the history of the United States on such a massive scale that it makes private racism seem like kindergarten play.”
The second question posed to me by my brother was a sense of life one. He asked me how I did it; how I managed to rewrite the narrative script I had inherited from family and culture. We all inherit a script, he noted, and we are the legatees of that social heritage. And yet, he observed, I had tossed it aside and re-created my version of that story.
Recalling Rand’s notion that the individual existed as a creature of volition possessed of free will, one who constantly appraises value constructs outside of those he finds as the dominant ones in his cultural milieu, I said to my brother, very somberly:
“I never had to take any of it seriously!”
The third question was posed to me just a few weeks ago in a philosophy honors class for gifted students at De Paul University (the nation’s largest Catholic University) where I was teaching a section on Rand’s Objectivist morality. An earnest, idealistic and self-identified liberal-progressive asked me in class why, in my opinion Rand was so disparaged by philosophers and the mainstream culture at large.
I asked the students if they would give me at least 20 minutes to answer this young man’s question in depth and they nodded unanimously in agreement.
Much of Rand’s work, I said, was about the moral status of the individual human soul in an age of mediocrity. What turned individuals away from Ayn Rand was not her atheism, not her defense of laissez-faire capitalism or even her rational demolition of altruism. It was something more visceral. It was their complicity in the destruction of the noblest and most idealistic sense of life that lay within their own souls. Somewhere along the way they told themselves that they had grown up. What they had done, though, tragically, was to annihilate the capacity to hold steadily to a vision of life’s better possibilities and their ability to be the chief engines of change within their own lives.
They had become disillusioned with life largely because they had bought into a cult of appeasement that seduced them into accepting the false idea that to get ahead required compromises, while Rand advocated an unbreachable commitment to one’s values and an equal commitment to the morally unimpeachable character that is required to uphold and preserve such values.
People think of Ayn Rand, I am convinced, 30 years after encountering and studying her philosophy and after deeply observing her detractors, and they feel retrospective shame and guilt over abandoning their idealistic selves — the sense of immeasurable benevolence and optimism they had known at 16 and irrevocably lost, a loss that cost them their vitality and a purpose for living on earth. Celebrating exaltation, heroism and achievement they had learned to sacrifice the best within themselves for a non-recuperable price. Once you you’ve sold your soul, it is no longer yours. You cannot recover it. In enshrining mediocrity such individuals had alienated themselves further from their deepest potential.
Ayn Rand, I submitted, was the penultimate scapegoat of our age who was routinely hated for her stylized creation of a wondrous universe in an age where too many people were polluting it with their unbridled vulgarity and mindless narcissism.
In one sense, she was the quintessential American novelist and thinker. She advocated self-reliance, rugged individualism, limited government, American optimism and benevolence and the can-do-attitude that is the unprecedented hallmark of American exceptionality. On the other hand — and this is part of why she is resented by many so-called progressives and conservatives alike — her philosophical sensibilities are truly outside the mainstream of Anglo-American analytic philosophy. At heart, she represented an aristocracy of the soul and of the mind, a perceived elitism by some; however, if that catchphrase has any conceptual resonance — it was an elitism to which all were invited provided they were willing to do the consistent thinking that will always be required of anyone who wishes to live as a human being.
* * *
As an academic philosopher of almost two decades and the author of books in philosophy that have little to do with Rand’s philosophy, what surprises me most about Rand’s system is how startlingly original it is against the backdrop of Western philosophy. This intellectual insurgent was deeply insightful and perceptive. Contemporary academics mired largely within their own cults of irrelevancy are resentful and tormented by her popularity. When my student asked me why I truly admired Ayn Rand I said that that her paean hymn to the glory and sacredness of the human spirit along with the emphasis she placed on the absolutism of reason and the celebration of the best within the individual was paramount. These were both aesthetic and philosophical pleasures worth contemplating as ends in themselves. She also offered, I told him, a systematic way of living a rational life in an irrational world. When you are the beneficiary of a philosophical legacy there can be no single metric by which you judge its efficacy save two: Its correspondence to an objective reality; and the sense in which it provides emotional and philosophical fuel for continuing to live in a world that often seems to be imploding and collapsing on itself.
As I walked back to my office that afternoon after answering my student’s earnest question about Ayn Rand, I remembered the closing of John Galt’s speech in “Atlas Shrugged” and I remembered the distinctly exhilarating sense of a wonderful discovery during the first time I had discovered her ideas. The speech, “The Sanction of the Victim,” was the last one she gave in New Orleans in November 1981, four months before she died.
Yes, the world you desired can be won, she had said, quoting Galt.
“But to win it requires your total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is a sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and the absolute rectitude of knowing that yours is the Morality of Life and that yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth.”
I thought of all the days of immense hardships in the early years of my life: the heartbreaking four-year separation from both my parents from the age of 3 to 7; watching my father descend into psychotic madness; and the seemingly endless persecution I experienced as a result of being gay in Jamaica.
I reflected on the struggle in America — the rejections and disappointments and even the moment when I had planned to take my life in despair and had tried to do so. But I had remembered the gallant call to celebrate the best within me and had risen from slumber and back to life. And each morning as I face the day with my head held up, aligned equally with the rest of my body, my hands moving in tandem with my stride — I feel the call of Life which is a command to rise.
And I watch as the universe slides from my side.