By Joseph Kellard
Over on the Harry Binswanger List, there’s been discussion of Christopher Hitchens, the former socialist who after September 11, 2001 abandoned the Left’s appeasing, anti-American foreign policy to question and critique the radical Islamics and their supporters who are bent on forcing us westerners to adopt their brand of mysticism—if at first they don’t annihilate us.
An atheist, Hitchens has written a book “God Is Not Great,” for which he has won high praise, even among Objectivists. But some Objectivists have highlighted the limits to which Hitchens and other atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” are true allies. To put it simply, their argument goes something like this: It’s great that non-Objectivist atheists are challenging religion and other forms of mysticism and supernaturalism on rational grounds, but their arguments are undercut by the irrationalism that they either inject into their arguments, or offer as an alternative or solution to the religionists-mystics-super naturalists; be wary of them as potential ideological allies.
Here’s a good example that pertains, specifically, to Ayn Rand. One Objectivist scholar and HBL member, Robert Mayhew, searched and found this quote from an interview with Hitchens (and noted that he is a literature professor who has written intros to numerous novels):
"Yeah, I'm invited to be unpleasant at the expense of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Well, that's easy. Well, the novels, first, asI keep trying to say that, you know, in my view, there's more morality in a novel by George Elliot than there is in any of the four Gospels, or of the four of them put together. I care very much about literature as the place where real dilemmas, ethical dilemmas, are met and dealt with. So to have novels as transcendently awful as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, sort of undermines my project. And then, though I have some respect for the ‘Virtue ofSelfishness,’ a collection of essays, … I don't think there's any need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings; I don't know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement."
So, essentially, what Hitchens is saying here is that Ayn Rand’s morality of rational self-interest is indistinguishable from the ethical code pontificated in the Gospels, i.e., religion.
Commenting on this quote, another HBL member said that he found it disturbing that men as intellectual and literate at Hitchens can read Ayn Rand but evade the substance of her writings on a massive scale. He went on to write that men like Hitchens confirm beyond doubt that even highly intelligent men can read Ayn Rand and yet “walk away from it.” By this, I gather he means that they can read “The Virtue of Selfishness,” in which Miss Rand elaborates on her original, radical moral code based on rational self-interest—in which an individual neither sacrifice others to himself, nor himself to others—but still argue that her brand of selfishness preaches “do whatever one want without concern for others.” In short, he brands Hitchens as dishonest.
To me, intelligent, philosophic men such as Hitchens—who dismissObjectivism in a way that is no different than your average un-philosophic Joe—further concretize a fundamental point abouthow Miss Rand conceived her philosophy. In his essay "My Thirty YearsWith Ayn Rand," Leonard Peikoff quotes her as once telling him: "My distinctive attribute is not genius, but intellectual honesty … My perspective as a creator has to be not 'How great I am' but 'Howtrue this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough toface the truth.'"
Ayn Rand's fans come in all shapes and sizes, that is, at variouslevels of intelligence and accomplishment—from the high schoolstudent, the waiter and career housewife, to the grade-schoolteacher, the businessman and the physicist. This proves that anindividual does not have to be highly intelligent or especially philosophical to understand and practice her nevertheless original, innovative ideas, which can take some people decades to fullyunderstand. This phenomenon I attribute mainly to Miss Rand'sability to effectively and powerfully concretize, i.e., ground andsimplify, those abstract ideas and do so with extraordinary clarity, particularly through the medium of fiction.
So while Objectivists are intelligent at various levels, what is morefundamentally important about them is that they share the same or asimilar level of honesty. Once they grasp her ideas, their distinctiveattribute is that they have the honesty and integrity to stand by andpractice them. Ultimately, honesty and courage are whatfundamentally make an Objectivist. Hitchens, however, is anintelligent but dishonest coward.
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Copyright © 2007 Joseph Kellard