Black lives should certainly matter as much as white lives, but did they matter to Ayn Rand?
It is often said in her favour that she was not a racist, and in a short essay she wrote in 1963, the year before Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she did not mince her words. She denounced it as “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism” and she attacked as “shameful” the attitudes toward blacks in the Southern states, and described legalised racial discrimination as “blatantly inexcusable.” It is true that she then veered off into historically dubious claims that only capitalism could eliminate it, which rather ignored the fact that the Atlantic slave trade was an excellent example of the free market at its most rampant, but it could at least be argued that her heart was in the right place.
Or was it?
That is difficult to believe after reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’. It is a book set in an imagined America which is almost exclusively white, but it is not hard to find in it a very nasty underlying racism. Consider two quotes from John Galt’s long rant, when he takes over the entire radio network of the USA.
“the jungle female with her shrivelled face and pendulous breasts….”
“some barefoot bum in some pesthole in Asia”
These may not represent racism in its purest form, but they come pretty close. Rand was contemptuous of any society that did not conform to her capitalist ideal, and if she was not racist in her view of the black population of the country, she certainly was where its original inhabitants were concerned. In ‘The Fountainhead’ Howard Roark put it very well in his address to the courthouse that is so admired by Sajid Javid. Speaking of the United States he had this to say:
“This, our country. The noblest country in the history of men. The country of greatest achievement, greatest prosperity, greatest freedom. This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, renunciation or any precept of altruism. It was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s.”
And certainly not based, one might add, on the happiness of the people who were occupying the country before the Europeans arrived, whose freedom was rather forcefully curtailed and whose sacrifice was rather insistently demanded. Rand believed that these people, because they had lacked any concept of ownership of the land they occupied (at the best, a sweeping generalisation), they had no right to it, and could be evicted without any qualms. Thus were whole nations written off.
Her tenuous grasp of history allowed other write-offs. The Palestinians, she argued, had no rights to their land because:
“The Arabs are one of the least developed cultures. They are typically nomads. Their culture is primitive.”
Thus, in a few words, she dismissed the founders of modern mathematics, chemistry and astronomy. The founders of the great and rich civilisations of Abbasid Baghdad and Moorish Spain. Rand’s blinkered world-view had no space in which to recognise the achievements of entire peoples of whom she did not approve. That is racism.
This is a short blog, because others have made these points far better. Consult Fardel’s Bear.