Posted by Charles Reece, November 15, 2009 11:56pm | Post a Comment
Novelist, scenarist, actress, "objectivist" and basic propagandist for rapacious capitalism Ayn Rand is someone I've always tended to steer clear of. My aversion is due more to her muddy and hypocritical thinking, as well as a writing style that's about as accomplished as a cheap 1930s sci-fi magazine, than any sort of challenge one encounters reading Leo Strauss and other conservative thinkers. But the ironically named Reason Magazine tends to talk about her, and their chief cartoonist, Peter Bagge (of Hate fame) has a new strip about what the mention of her name elicits in the circles he frequents (over-caffeinated Seattleites, I guess). To any of my pals who might have an opinion on her, she's considered something like what American Idol winners are to music, namely for people who don't like philosophy. You know, Alan Greenspan. Since I can't speak for Bagge's choice of friends, I'm only going to take issue with his final (and I note hysterically rendered) panel:


...And, this being a movie blog, in particular how it's contradicted by Rand's role in the Hollywood Red-baiting of the late 40s and 50s. In 1944, to combat communist infiltration in Hollywood, Walt Disney and some other conservatives formed The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Some of its most prominent members were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ward Bond and Leo McCarey. The organization's statement of principles can be read here. Another associate was Rand, who wrote a manifesto for the group in 1950 titled "Screen Guide for Americans," which was a program for weeding out Red influence from the pictures with enumerated commandments: "Don't smear the free enterprise system," "don't smear industrialists," "don't smear wealth," "don't smear the profit motive," "don't smear success," etc. Her supposed probity against the use of "physical force to impose her ideas" can be read in the document's conclusion:

The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas -- which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense. 

But she's clearly speaking out of both sides of her mouth when she follows that up with:

[L]et us put an end to their use of our pictures, our studios and our money for the purpose of preaching our expropriation, enslavement and destruction.

As the like-minded have argued, Rand was under no loyalty contract to friends when she agreed (along with many of her comrades in the Alliance) to testify as a friendly witness in 1947 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC as it's incorrectly, but commonly abbreviated) in their investigation of the communist influence in Hollywood. Communists were her avowed enemies, in fact. But just what kind of pressure does a Senate hearing have if not that of a presumed threat of police force backing it up should one refuse to cooperate? If this were just a matter of her naïveté, she should've been disabused when the Hollywood Ten went to jail for taking their constitutionally "protected" fifth amendment right to not testify. However, it was a couple years after their convictions that she wrote the "Screen Guide." Now, it's undeniable that many Hollywood leftists have had a blinkered view of communism continuing right up to this day (just look at Sean Penn and Oliver Stone's views on Fidel Castro). According to Edward Dmytryk later in his life, he and others in the Ten actually took orders from the Party:

We worked for the Comintern, we were given directions by the Comintern, the Party was in the middle of all of it!

But the question for any civil libertarian (a small group, granted, even among libertarians) is whether anyone should have the right to promote such values in art, either in a subtle manner or in an explicitly ideological rant, along the lines of Rand's adaptation of her book The Fountainhead (starring Cooper and directed by King Vidor)? In defending the profit motive (her 5th commandment), Rand says:

An industrialist has to be interested in profit. In a free economy, he can make a profit only if he makes a good product which people are willing to buy. 

There is nothing dishonorable about a pursuit of money in a free economy, because money can be earned only by productive effort.

So it would seem that the free market should decide whether communist ideas are worthy of selling Hollywood's product, not the government. That's the beauty of capitalism according to Michael Moore, he can criticize it all he wants, and as long as business men can turn a profit from his criticism, they'll continue to fund his films. So where's the problem with capitalist producers ("industrialists") using communist propaganda? It's perfectly moral in a world reduced to exchange value.

Rand claimed to not have a problem with communists making explicit propaganda, which for her would be nothing less than their openly claiming in long rants about how they're out to corrupt American individualism. Her problem was with subtlety (big surprise there, given her own thinking), or ideology (that wasn't her own, of course) included in films that weren't supposed to be political (i.e., that were supposed to be taken as status quo ideology). It was on this basis (because, let's face it, there were no avowedly communist films being made in mainstream Hollywood at the time) that she testified before HUAC, giving them an exegetic lesson on the communist subtext of Song of Russia (starring the anti-communist Alliance member Robert Taylor). See, despite all the folderol about how she prized American Individualism in the "Screen Guide," she really didn't trust individuals to make up their own minds about what films would receive either producers' funding or the moviegoers' attendance. Instead, she gave her support (by way of her testimony and manifesto) to the Law to help ensure that ideologically opposed creators (many of whom were certified moneymakers) would get excluded from the free marketplace of ideas. During the Blacklist, the Hollywood powers-that-be made an "economic choice" to no longer employ the communists of the overt or covert kind, regardless of their previous earning potential (albeit some writers continued to work under pseudonyms or as ghostwriters). Rand didn't have to threaten violence when the government was doing it for her.


Relevant Tags

House Committee On Un-american Activities (1), Peter Bagge (1), Ayn Rand (2), Communism (3), Hollywood (86)