MARIA BUSTILLOS VS AYN RAND
DURING THE HOLIDAYS the online literary journal The Awl tweeted out the link to an essay they’d republished on 12/23/2013, “When Alan Met Ayn,” by Maria Bustillos. It was originally published 4/12/2011. The Awl’s editors apparently believe the essay is one of the best things they’ve published, or they wouldn’t still be hyping it.
The essay caught my interest for a couple of reasons.
First, because it’s by Ms. Bustillos. Maria Bustillos is a fan of Tom Bissell’s book of essays, Magic Hours. When the book came out she gave it a glowing review, and applauded in particular his hatchet man essay on the Underground Literary Alliance. She appreciated a cheap shot Bissell took in the essay at me and an underground writer. (More about that in another post.)
Second, I noted obvious intellectual dishonesty in the Bustillos essay. I’m not an Objectivist—then again, one never knows—and I disagree with the Ayn Rand philosophy on several points. At the same time it’s obvious to me that the established literary community has long tried to marginalize Rand and her writings—her achievements—as if they weren’t after all part of American literary history. As if they should preferably be banned from it; in the same way that same establishment has banned mention of the ULA. (In Rand’s case, it’s tough to ignore massive sales figures.) The Bustillos rant against Rand strikes me as yet another attempt to conform and homogenize American literature, to pare from it unacceptable styles and ideas.
What struck me in the essay as most misleading:
Where do I begin? Probably with Bustillos’ most fraudulent claim, that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was an Objectivist. You’ll have to read the passages in her essay yourself to see if Bustillos means this tongue-in-cheek. Her reasoning seems to be that Stalin was an egotist; Ayn Rand lauded egotists; therefore Stalin subscribed to Rand’s philosophy. This is twisted logic, but I find it used often in mainstream essays. It’s like saying that because all Spartans are soldiers, all soldiers are Spartans. Such backward logic throws over the bounds of sense. It allows the commentator to say just about anything.
Her bringing Stalin into the conversation struck me, because it’s the same game that was played by Tom Bissell in his essay on the ULA. Characterize your opponent as the worst kind of historical person imaginable, using the flimsiest thread of sense to do so.
In Bissell’s case, he characterized the Do-It-Yourself working class writers of the ULA as Bolsheviks, though our philosophy was the polar opposite of what the Bolsheviks advocated and practiced. The comparison was made and gotten away with likely only because we were, in the main, working class.
The Rand/Stalin comparison Bustillos makes is more ludicrous. What Stalin was, indisputably, was a Marxist-Leninist. His commitment to the ideology was lifelong. His actions were justified by the ideology. As Bustillos indicates, Ayn Rand’s family was dispossessed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Bustillos passes over this lightly—yet it’s the best explanation available for the extremism of Rand’s own ideas. Her philosophy, in its every tenet or novelistic character, was a reaction to what she’d experienced.
Stalin and his buds eliminated not just the wealthy. Anarchists were among the first to be silenced. With studied Marxist-Leninist rigor, millions of Ukrainian Kulaks—modestly wealthy peasants—were wiped out. Through his entire life, following the proper ideological maxims, Stalin sacrificed his people again and again to the interest of the all-powerful state.
Stalin was no Ayn Rand-style individualist. He rose to power as a member of a collective. He operated through his career as member of a collective. Stalin did what he did, in his mind, for the good of the collective.
A case can be made that Stalin wasn’t even much of an egotist. Churchill’s memoirs and those of others; descriptions of Stalin at conferences like Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam; show him to be in personality modest and self-effacing. Rather quiet. A good observer and listener.
We know he lived a modest, even Spartan lifestyle; usually in a small apartment or office in the Kremlin. His technique was that of power behind the scenes. A puppetmaster pulling strings. (As he did during the show trials; unobserved except as the red tip of a cigar behind an enormous screen.) For a long part of his tenure he allowed others to be front man head of state. Sure, he created a cult of personality about himself. He did this first with his mentor Lenin. In his shrewdness Stalin saw that the Russian people needed a god. Unlike Hitler, Stalin was not the kind of megalomaniacal dictator who required the adulation of his people. Famously, Stalin hid from the Russian people.
Stalin’s career stands almost as the triumph of a non-egotist. In person he was the most quiet and humble of the early Bolsheviks—which is why they trusted him and gave him power. His ascension over the vastly more dynamic, charismatic, and egotistical Trotsky was a victory of the quintessential bureaucrat. Of the Machine.
The man known as Joseph Stalin was skilled at handling individualistic egotists, as he showed at Yalta with his skillful negotiations with two men who had two of the largest egos in history, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Was FDR an Objectivist?
By Bustillos’ definition, everyone short of Gandhi and Mother Theresa can be classified as an Objectivist. Given their fame, we may as well lump those two into the category as well.
What of the rest of the Maria Bustillos essay?
Look at it closely and you’ll see it’s filled with distortions. The argument against Alan Greenspan, and the connection between Greenspan and Ayn Rand, is jerry-rigged.
Yes, Greenspan was a core follower of Rand’s. But when he took the Fed job, after Ayn Rand’s death, Alan Greenspan, in Objectivist eyes, joined the camp of the enemy. Objectivists are a species of libertarian. Like all libertarians, they seek the elimination of the Federal Reserve System. A tops-down all-controlling central bank is anathema to them. They see it as a Communistic triumph—not least because the establishment of a central bank is plank#5 of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Are not Maria Bustillos and the Awl editors aware of this? This alone discredits the essay’s argument.
One can see why Greenspan took the job—aside from abandoning, as others have done (see George Saunders) many of his youthful beliefs. He might’ve thought that by being inside the Beast, he could moderate its effects. There’s no doubt that if Ayn Rand were alive she would’ve banished him from the Objectivist community—and done it with style. Any economic collapse taking place during his watch would’ve been Greenspan’s just desserts, in her eyes.
But the collapse didn’t take place during his tenure. A financial panic did occur, but not the one in 2008. The stock market collapsed in 1987. Greenspan—and the Reagan administration—quickly limited the damage, and in short time put the Machine back on its feet; operating smoothly. It’s kind of unfair, don’t you think?, for Greenspan, having successfully battled the contradictions and inefficiencies of his own time, to be blamed for the failures of a later date.
Another problem with Bustillos’ argument is that she confuses monetary and fiscal policy. They are two different things. Greenspan may have wanted more deregulation—but he was in charge solely of monetary policy. He was answerable to Congress, and the President, for that. They weren’t answerable to him. Regulation is the domain of law and the enforcement of law. This is handled by Congress and the President. Not by the Fed chairman.
Bustillos uses several out-of-context quotes from Greenspan’s testimony before Congress, when he, like a lot of players, was called to answer for the 2008 fiasco. The fact remains that his only influence on the financial markets was as advisor and cheerleader. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is responsible for regulating the markets. The SEC is a creation of Congress and is answerable to Congress—not to the Fed chairman. Much of what the Congress did with their hearings (as with most congressional hearings) was for show. To evade their own responsibility in the matter. Or: politics, providing fodder for advocate commentators like Maria Bustillos.
As for what caused the 2008 collapse, there’s likely enough blame to go around on all sides, in both parties. An, er, “objective” journalist would see this. The creation of financial and economic bubbles might be instrinsic to the mega-Capitalist system we live in. How you handle them is as important as avoiding them. In both respects, the guy you’d want involved, in at least part of it, would be someone as famously tight as Mr. Greenspan. He did keep the massive bloated machine operating for twenty years, with all its dysfunctions, contradictions, and inefficiencies. No mean feat.
I wonder if Maria Bustillos and The Awl editors are as concerned about new financial bubbles being created, through the massive amounts of money—created out of thin air—currently being pumped into the Fed system. Do they care? Are they aware it’s happening?
Another point of Maria Bustillos’ attack is her condemnation of Wall Street. Of so much wealth being funnelled to so few, and at that, those who create nothing themselves, but merely manipulate paper—or numbers on computer screens.
Here again, Maria Bustillos is being unfair, this time to Ayn Rand, who would condemn the crony capitalist manipulators of financial instruments on Wall Street. In both of her big novels, Ayn Rand’s strongest scorn is for that affluent and well-connected layer of “parasites” who suck wealth from the system. Rand lauds instead the producers, the manufacturers, the designers—the actual creators of marketable products. Don’t take my word for it. Read the novels. See for yourself.
No, Maria Bustillos, like her friend Tom Bissell, isn’t a fair-minded journalist. Like so many other of her peers, she’s a propagandist. The objective is to construct a distorted straw man of your opponent so you can knock it down. The troubling aspect is that her mishmash of inept thought and misrepresentation is taken for legitimate journalism. At least when Ayn Rand put her propaganda onto the pages of novels, she made it coherent and compelling.
Is Maria Bustillos an Objectivist, or a Marxist?
Likely she’s a little of both. But chiefly, Bissell and Bustillos are fashionable liberals who believe in little of nothing. They like the idea of changing this nation’s hierarchies—or of being perceived as liking the idea. They just don’t want to change the hierarchy they work in.
We live in an Age of Propaganda. A time when slanted opinions come at the reader or viewer from every direction. A time when being “well-educated” means having a superficial knowledge of subjects—as Bustillos has—having done some reading or research in the areas one proposes to write about, but (like Tom Bissell with the ULA) having no knowledge in depth. The glibness and facile ethics of the propagandists, and the ignorance of their audience, allows them to get away with it.
And so the essayist can belch up, from his-or-her depths, like a stage medium in performance, a long rant which connects with the prejudices of their readership, and at the same time is plausible enough to be believed by that scantly educated “educated” readership.
There are reasons, beyond those of ideology and politics, why Ayn Rand has been universally hated (hated not too strong a word) by the established literary community. This, despite her feminism. Despite the reality that most who inhabit the literary scene are not models of altruism, but are instead hugely ambitious, egoistic, often supremely selfish individuals.
That’s one of the reasons right there. Rand’s naked celebration of the artistic ego is too blatant. It conflicts not with the reality of these people, but their adopted face.
The other reason may lie in Ayn Rand’s attacks on artistic cronyism in The Fountainhead. Her depiction of literary dilettantes and fakes. Her satirical scenes are perhaps too close to the way the literary scene operates.
In her essay, Maria Bustillos refers to the gap in the Soviet Union between nomenklatura and the population as if it were Stalin’s doing, and not a natural process inevitable to Marxism; to any attempt to impose upon a people a tops-down controlling state. The inevitable rise of bureaucracy. The unavoidable proliferation of bureaucrats wielding maximum authority.
Isn’t a nomenklatura the affliction of American literature today? To have standing to speak on literary subjects one should be certified; legitimized by academies, or by gates and gatekeepers. The literary herd operates as a unit, intolerant of unfamiliar ideas. It’s a mindset the Underground Literary Alliance fought against. A mindset embodied in Tom Bissell and Maria Bustillos.
Bissell made his career by accommodating powerful literary individuals such as Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. From his days as an intern at Harpers he played the cronyistic game, and has never stopped playing it.
Maria Bustillos, advocate of the downtrodden, was fine with Bissell taking cheap shots at the renegade writers of the ULA. Her own contradictions and the contradictions in today’s literary scene don’t matter to her. Power matters. The Believer/McSweeney’s empire, narcissistic and individualistic to the max, with its own cult leader, is a center of literary power. Would Maria Bustillos mess with these people? I think not. You’ll see no critical essays from her or from anyone about them. So much safer to beat up on outcast American rebels—or on a long-dead American novelist—instead.