October 2, 2007

Clarence Thomas on Ayn Rand.

From page 62 of "My Grandfather's Son," in the chapter about law school and his ideological shift from left-wing radicalism to conservatism:
It was around this time that I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Rand preached a philosophy of radical individualism that she called Objectivism. While I didn't fully accept its tenets, her vision of the world made more sense to me that that of my left-wing friends. "Do your own thing" was their motto, but now I saw that the individualism implicit in that phrase was superficial and strictly limited. They thought, for instance, that it was going too far for a black man to do his thing by breaking with radical politics, which was what I now longed to do. I never went along with the militant separatism of the Black Muslims, but I admired their determination to "do for self, brother," as well as their discipline and dignity. That was Daddy's way. He knew that to be truly free and participate fully in American life, poor blacks had to have the tools to do for themselves. This was the direction in which my political thinking was moving as my time at Holy Cross drew to an end. The question was how much courage I could muster up to express my individuality. What I wanted was for everyone -- the government, the racists, the activists, the students, even Daddy -- to leave me alone so that I could finally start thinking for myself.

57 comments:

hdhouse said...

I shrug in dismay. "left-wing" friends? "leave me alone so i could start thinking for myself"?

I would think that someone with 1 of 9 of some the most important votes on earth would seek the thoughts of as many others as possible, discarding much, expanding on some and distilling others, THEN forming your own conclusions and subsequent opinions.

I guess the mind of Clarence the Silent is chock full of ready-fire-aim.

P. D. "Bo" Steele said...

Rand's influence on major figures continues to multiply. Alan "the Undertaker" Greenspan was also heavily influenced by Rand. And of course, the influence of Rand's writings on my life is well known.

Too bad Rand never figured out how a "free society" could finance an army.

jimbino said...

He only needs an editor to place "too" instead of "to" and to change "muster up" to "muster."

SMGalbraith said...

I would think that someone with 1 of 9 of some the most important votes on earth would seek the thoughts of as many others as possible,

He's describing an experience in his early 20s during one of the more tumultuous periods in our modern history. I hardly think it's representative of his approach to ideas today.

Second, it seems to me that this is exactly what he was trying to do. That is break away from the Procrustean identity politics that required (and still requires) members of specific groups to adhere to a straight ideological line.

If one doesn't follow the line, one is denounced as a traitor to that group (if not worse).

The only way he could experience or learn about other worldviews was to leave that narrow worldview that claims that, for members, there must be only ONE view.

Good for him. He grew up.

SMG

PatCA said...

I too remember reading Rand as a college freshman. For a sheltered Catholic girl, this was explosive stuff! I literally stood up in the library as I read a speech of hers at Berkeley. To me it made more sense as well--hippies and liberals at the time seemed fun but philosophically incoherent. Perhaps Catholics like us, with a strong grounding in church theory, naturally would respond to objectivism more than hippie-ism.

I'm buying the book!

Paul Brinkley said...

Aye, a lot of Rand made sense to me, too (I've only read Atlas Shrugged), and also, I don't accept all of the tenets.

That seems to be the way of things. The more rigidly defined the societal system, the less acceptable I find it.

Daryl said...

jimbino: I assume the "to(o)" typo were Anns' because their are no (sick) in front of it. Surely she would not miss the opportunity to correct J. Thomas.

knoxwhirled said...

I guess the mind of Clarence the Silent is chock full of ready-fire-aim.

Try not to be so knee-jerk. He's talking about when he was practically still a kid. Would you want someone to judge you on your beliefs and emotions when you were in college?

knoxwhirled said...

I read The Fountainhead for the first time about 6 months ago. Hated it! She was way overselling it to me. But it probably would have made a big impact had I read it as a youngster.

Henry said...

I've always found Rand completely unreadable, though her ideas have a certain adolescent power.

The connection of Ayn Rand with the Black Muslims is much more intriguing than just Rand by herself.

tbrosz said...

Too bad Rand never figured out how a "free society" could finance an army.

Actually, she did. She was not an anarchist, and supported government in its proper functions. One of these would be the military. She didn't think a mechanism for government funding would be that difficult, and didn't spend much thought on it. But as one example, she suggested a voluntary fee that would be added to contracts that would give the contractors access to the government to enforce the contract (courts, etc.)

Ann Althouse said...

Typos are mine. I'm copying from the book, not cutting and pasting.

But he does write "muster up."

John said...

I have never gotten past the fact that Rand is a terrible novelist. Her characters are all unchanging cartoons of themselves. No one ever questions themselves or evolves during the story. She doesn't have characters as much as she has forces of nature. It is like reading the Iliad only without the human characters, just the Gods. That combined with her overwrought boring prose makes her books well neigh unreadable. It may make for good politics but it makes for terrible drama and huge books that take months out of your life to finish. In the time it takes to read one of her tomes, you could read something worthwhile like Gibbon or War and Peace.

former law student said...

ideological shift from left-wing radicalism to conservatism

Ha. When I was in ug, during the early 70s, I literally did not know any conservatives until after the draft ended. None of us wanted to have our lives disrupted in the service of the Domino Theory. Once the US pulled out of Viet Nam, the conservatives appeared. I wonder if Thomas's change of faith also coincided with the end of his draft exposure.

Does the book talk about the war, Ann?

El Presidente said...

Jimbino,

'Muster up' is a pretty common colloquialism, especially in the American South.

To for Too is a typo by your lilly white Professor Althouse.

knoxwhirled said...

your lilly white Professor Althouse

If Althouse would ever let that white hair grow in. Oops, I'm intruding on Maxine's territory, commenting about hair...

Warren said...

I'm so tired of all the "Rand was a terrible writer who only appeals to adolescents" stuff. She was a brilliant writer who's books are a little more demanding than some are willing to invest. That is all. It's not her fault if you don't 'get' them.

rjschwarz said...

I would think that someone with 1 of 9 of some the most important votes on earth would seek the thoughts of as many others as possible,

The thoughts of many college students of the era very similar and in many ways prevented any search for the thoughts of others. Yet he searched for other ideas. You blast him for doing exactly what you say he should do.

George said...

Former law student wrote: When I was in ug, during the early 70s, I literally did not know any conservatives until after the draft ended.

Well, when I was in ug in the late 60's, I literally did know conservatives. I belonged to Young Americans for Freedom -- we even erected a "Berlin Wall" in front of a traveling USSR exhibit inside the student union. Admittedly, I did not know any conservatives on campus in the early '70's, as I was in VN limiting the dominoes that ultimately fell, but when I returned to the world (as we said back then) I found conservatives in the workplace.

Former law student, you just needed to get out more.

gullyborg said...

I would think that someone with 1 of 9 of some the most important votes on earth would seek the thoughts of as many others as possible

actually, I'm glad he didn't then, and doesn't now.

the Supreme Court is meant to be a panel of independent thinking experts on the law, not a consensus-building, finger-in-the-wind, popularity meter.

there is a reason why we live in a REPUBLIC and not a democracy. When you let too many people get involved in the decision making process, you end up with the tyranny of the majority.

I want our Justices to have their own beliefs and stick with them. If we end up with Justices we don't like, then we need to elect a President who will appoint the "right" people to the job.

If you like Clarence Thomas (as I do), vote for a President who says he will appoint Justices in the mold of Clarence Thomas. If you hate Clarence Thomas, vote for a democrat.

former law student said...

george, what kind of school did you go to?

The parents of a fellow I later worked with pressured him to go to BYU, even though they knew nothing about the LDS church, because they had read in the Sunday paper that it was free from campus radicalism, which was rampant at every other school my friends attended.

SMGalbraith said...

I'm glad he didn't then, and doesn't now

But he did. From Catholic seminarian to radical leftist to black nationalist to Randian objectivism to Nozick libertarianism.

Helluva ride.

Frederick Douglas would say, it seems to me, "Yes, a truly free man." No more chains.

SMG

Kevin said...

John said...
I have never gotten past the fact that Rand is a terrible novelist. Her characters are all unchanging cartoons of themselves. No one ever questions themselves or evolves during the story.

This is so untrue of any of her books that I have to discount any of your opinions about Rand - you must not have understood them very well.

Incidentally, while it is technically correct to call some of Rand's writings novels, they are are a lot deeper than that and require a lot more effort and thinking to fully comprehend. If you were expecting to read a standard novel, I can understand why you were disappointed.

P. D. "Bo" Steele said...

tbrosz:

Nice try. Actually she didn't figure out to finance a free society (absent the occasionally vague reference to a lottery), and if she did, she never wrote of it. I'm not sure how you can claim she never put much thought into it, although she was fond of throwing this issue into the lap of the "legal philosophers," whoever that is.

I raised the issue on purpose. This is major defect of the Randian worldview, and an Objectivist would call this classic rationalism.

Justice Thomas might not acknowledge this, but most former Objectivists have left the fold because of Rand's inability to address such basic issues.

zzRon said...

"I have never gotten past the fact that Rand is a terrible novelist."


Well, I wouldnt say she was a "terrible" novelist, just not a very good one :-) Luckily, my first exopsure to her was a collection of short essays which I enjoyed very much - and still do. If one cares anything about political and philosphical ideas, IMHO Rand's non fiction books are must reads.

Revenant said...

Would you want someone to judge you on your beliefs and emotions when you were in college?

You're assuming hdhouse's beliefs and emotions have changed since he was in college?

Trooper York said...

Gordon Pritchard: Half these guys don't even go here and that one guy is like ninety
(Old School 2003)

former law student said...

This is so untrue of any of her books that I have to discount any of your opinions about Rand - you must not have understood them very well.

Incidentally, while it is technically correct to call some of Rand's writings novels, they are are a lot deeper than that and require a lot more effort and thinking to fully comprehend. If you were expecting to read a standard novel, I can understand why you were disappointed.


Yes, anyone who criticizes Rand's novels is by definition, too stupid to appreciate the power of her ideas and the beauty of her expression.

Line up, pod people. The Kool-Aid pitchers are to your right.

Balfegor said...

Re: Warren:

I'm so tired of all the "Rand was a terrible writer who only appeals to adolescents" stuff. She was a brilliant writer who's books are a little more demanding than some are willing to invest. That is all. It's not her fault if you don't 'get' them.

But . . . well, look. The thing is, a lot of people -- including myself -- have enjoyed Rand's novels in the past. But we've enjoyed them the way we've enjoyed, say, Isaac Asimov's novels in the past. When we were young. And didn't care whether the writing was good or not.

Her books are not really demanding at all. Everything is laid out for the reader in clear soliloquies that run on for pages and pages and pages. There is no subtlety, no sense of the story and theme unfolding for the reader, the way you get with the best novels, where the pieces are all cunningly fit together with a significance that is clear only later, with minor themes and major variations, and so on. One might as well just read an essay.

Zeb Quinn said...

Through the 60s I tried to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead several times, but always found it very tedious going and never got very far. Then I learned that she left Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and came to the US at age 21, knowing no English, taught herself the language, determined to succeed as a writer writing exclusively in English, which is what she then did. After I learned that I understood why her writing was so tedious and, oddly, found her actually fairly easy to read.

former law student said...

zeb,

Let me tell you about the son of a revolutionary arrested by the Tsar, orphaned by the age of eleven, who started working at age 16, as a sailor, who knew no English until he worked on British ships, and didn't become fluent until his twenties. Yet somehow he became a novelist, too, just like Ayn, but instead of writing enduring, incandescent works like "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", he dashed off now-forgotten trifles like "Lord Jim" and "Heart of Darkness."

Ralph said...

El Presidente, the correct typing is "T for Too", as Trooper York can tell you.

John, I hope you weren't being sarcastic about Gibbon. He nailed Rome's self-inflicted economic problems correctly: debased currency and high taxes, rather like the 1970's.

John Kindley said...

p. d. "bo" steele said: "Too bad Rand never figured out how a 'free society' could finance an army."

And here I am to supply the answer Rand never figured out. As I recently explained on my blog at www.leftlibertarianquaker.blogspot.com

"The most obvious difference between that conception of government and the illegitimate conception of government we have now is our present acceptance of pervasive armed robbery in the form of involuntary taxation. It is not only unjust in itself but is the source of the bloating and concentration of governmental power that in turn finances all of the other governmental aggressions against the rights of the people that are now carried on. There are in fact well-known ways by which the government could fund itself without resorting to robbery and that would actually serve to remedy rather than aggravate injustice. As discussed in my post titled "Why be a left libertarian?", for example, the land (apart from any improvements on it) and other natural resources in a community and the economic rent associated therewith (as well as, arguably, the estates of decedents) belong equally to all in the community, not just to those who presently hold title and possession. Since the necessary collection and distribution of this rent could ordinarily not be administered without the agency of some kind of governmental organization, it is legitimate for that governmental body to keep that part of the revenue which is needed for its necessary services before distributing the remainder equally to the members of the community (the Georgist "single-tax")."

Henry said...

Rand tops off Atlas Shrugged with an astounding deus ex machina -- the discovery of a completely affordable, clean power source. Her captains of industry, holed up in their secret valley (kind of like Jackson Hole, I guess, but without the Hollywood types), need never experience anything but blue skies forever.

Sorry, but I don't take that proposition seriously.

Revenant said...

Yet somehow he became a novelist, too, just like Ayn, but instead of writing enduring, incandescent works like "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", he dashed off now-forgotten trifles like "Lord Jim" and "Heart of Darkness."

I realize that you were being sarcastic there, but realistically "Lord Jim" pretty much IS forgotten at this point, and "Heart of Darkness" is known mostly as "that story Apocalypse Now was based on".

Personally, I could never get in to Conrad's OR Rand's writing. Conrad's really dated, and Rand is too monomaniacal.

knoxwhirled said...

I'm so tired of all the "Rand was a terrible writer who only appeals to adolescents" stuff. She was a brilliant writer who's books are a little more demanding than some are willing to invest. That is all. It's not her fault if you don't 'get' them.

We could quibble forever about which parts of her ideas we agree on, or not, and I'm not trying to stiff her of her rightful place as an important Thinker and all... but "brilliant writer," no.

former law student said...

Lord Jim is a staple of AP English in the US. It reads like a dream compared to the Randian works.

Ralph said...

We had to read Lord Jim in high school, an excellent way to ruin a writer's legacy. I've just reread the caustic wit of Maugham's Cakes and Ale, which is so much better than his "masterpiece", Of Human Bondage.

John said...

"John, I hope you weren't being sarcastic about Gibbon. He nailed Rome's self-inflicted economic problems correctly: debased currency and high taxes, rather like the 1970's."

I wasn't being sarcastic at all. I love Gibbon and I love War and Peace. Rand is only a good writer if you have never read very much.

former law student said...

Which Conrad work did you like better? BTW I wonder if school libraries allow "The 'Nigger' of the Narcissus" to appear on their shelves. Of Maugham I liked "The Casuarina Tree."

Freeman Hunt said...

Lord Jim is a staple of AP English in the US.

It is? We didn't read that. Of course, that was ten years ago...

Revenant said...

Lord Jim is a staple of AP English in the US. It reads like a dream compared to the Randian works.

I never encountered "Lord Jim" in AP English class. I did read "Heart of Darkness", which I found tiresome and predictable.

Ralph said...

Freeman, I suspect they all wax and wane. Somehow I've only had to read one short Hemingway story, and I've never gone back for more. My fruity English teacher was big on Lawrence and Styron and a few other depressives.

Joan said...

It bears repeating that at no time was Thomas a Randian, or even self-identified as an objectivist. He said he read the books and realized the people he was hanging out with were shallow and limiting. That's a far cry from becoming one of Rand's accolytes.

We the Living is Rand's shortest, best (if such a thing could be said) novel. Less didactic, more tragic; certain scenes I'll never forget -- the main character unsewing a dress and turning it inside-out and res-sewing it, so it looks newer, for one.

Verso said...

It's not by accident that nearly every Rand enthusiast first read her works when they were 12, 13, maybe 17, or 18 years of age.

My brother thought her writing was revolutionary when he was introduced to it as a middle-schooler, and he remains (at age 46) a committed Randite.

And he's the norm. I've never met anyone who found Rand in adulthood and embraced her turgid writing and simplistic characterization, plot, and "philosophy."

But then, we can't deny she's had a lot of influence on a certain kind of rightwinger.

Revenant said...

It's not true that nearly every Rand enthusiast first read her works when they were 12, 13, maybe 17, or 18 years of age.

I corrected your typo.

Seriously, though -- expected us to believe that the primary fan base of an 1100-page philosophical novel from the 1950s consists of junior high school students? In reality, of course, few people encounter Rand before college.

zzRon said...

"I corrected your typo."

Are you sure it was a typo?


"In reality, of course, few people encounter Rand before college."


Well then, I must be one of the few. My second grade class was introduced to "The Fountainhead" a few weeks after we had fully digested "My Little Red Storybook". I guess the teacher figured we werent quite ready for the fifteen hundred frickin pages of "Atlas Shrugged".

Balfegor said...

Seriously, though -- expected us to believe that the primary fan base of an 1100-page philosophical novel from the 1950s consists of junior high school students? In reality, of course, few people encounter Rand before college.

No more surprising than that Robert Heinlein still has a bit of a fanbase in the middle and high school set. He is, true, a more exciting writer than Rand is, but there's loads of cross-over appeal there. Libertarians and libertines and so on. It's possible that many people encounter her work for the first time in college, but I really do think high school is a much more likely time for most of her fans. The Rand-fans I recall from my own university days (not so long ago) mostly came to university already fans of Rand, rather than coming to her later.

Jim said...

I've always found Rand completely unreadable, though her ideas have a certain adolescent power.

"Unreadable", yet you're still sufficiently well-versed in her ideas enough to criticize them, eh?

The connection of Ayn Rand with the Black Muslims is much more intriguing than just Rand by herself.

Um, Cite?

Funny thing about Rand, this sort of snide adolescent posturing is all she can gather by way of criticism, or so it seems.

I raised the issue financing armies/governments on purpose. This is major defect of the Randian worldview, and an Objectivist would call this classic rationalism.

So Ayn Rand doesn't have a complete program all laid out for you down to the last detail -- leaving no room to budge, saving you all the effort of thought involved in building on the foundation she gave -- and that's a "major flaw" on her part?

That's like saying that an architect's plans must suck because he doesn't tell the interior decorator precisely how to do his job.

This criticism mutually annihilates with the one about her view of society being "too rigid".

M. Simon said...

deus ex machina:

Bussard Fusion Reactor
Easy Low Cost No Radiation Fusion

M. Simon said...

Rand is really popular among the "don't give a damn" set.

i.e. as long as you don't scare the horses on a public street I don't give a damn what you do.

Among the meddlers she is not so popular.

I'm somewhat a fan of Objectivism. Of her novels - not so much.

I was in high school when Atlas Shrugged came out. Lots of kids carried that one around.

former law student said...

People I knew (including me) read Rand in high school. In college the amount of assigned reading made leisure reading not all that appealing.

Joan said...

My second grade class was introduced to "The Fountainhead" a few weeks after we had fully digested "My Little Red Storybook".

Do you really expect anyone to believe that?

zzRon said...

"Do you really expect anyone to believe that?"


No, I dont - with the reason being the statement is TOTALLY rediculous. Just a feeble amtempt at humor on my part, I guess :-).

In reality, I first encountered Rand at the very young age of 37.

md said...

Verso said...

" It's not by accident that nearly every Rand enthusiast first read her works when they were 12, 13, maybe 17, or 18 years of age."

I actually first read Ayn at 29 and wished so strongly that I had soldiered through the book at sixteen.

I think her philosophy, though flawed, is amazing. Her actual prose , admittedly, is sometimes not so great.

Revenant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Revenant said...

No more surprising than that Robert Heinlein still has a bit of a fanbase in the middle and high school set. He is, true, a more exciting writer than Rand is, but there's loads of cross-over appeal there.

Yeah, but Robert Heinlein wrote a lot of books FOR teenagers, before he started writing more adult-oriented books later in life. It is hardly surprising that a 13-year-old would like "Starship Troopers". Rand's writing is not accessible to young teenagers. There's nothing there to relate to, really.

Rand is what Heinlein fans read after they get to college. :)