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Objectivism in the June 2013 Reason Papers: part 5 of 6


Back to the Reason Papers preview: item 5 in the preview is a pair of film reviews (or more generally, film commentaries) by Timothy Sandefur. Film reviews aren’t exactly the stock in trade of academic journals, but Sandefur’s film reviews are going into a new section of the journal that we call “Afterwords,” designed for short, well-written, and well-argued pieces on relatively topical issues that fall between the cracks of standard academic discussion. The two films in question are “Lincoln” and “Les Miserables.” “Lincoln” came out in November 2012, “Les Miserables” in December 2012. DVDs for both films came out about a month ago.

The Objectivist connection here is to some extent indirect. Sandefur is, to be sure, an Objectivist (or at least very sympathetic to Objectivism), and Ayn Rand’s admiration for Victor Hugo is well known. So there’s a clear enough rationale for including a review of “Les Miserables” in a preview of Objectivist material in Lincoln_2012_Teaser_Posterthe June issue of RP. On the other hand, there’s no distinctively Objectivist position on Lincoln as president or politician, so it may be a puzzle why I’ve highlighted Sandefur’s discussion of that film here. On reflection, however, a series of puzzles ought to arise here, all relevant to Objectivism, and Sandefur’s film commentaries provide a useful point of entry into them.

Ayn Rand’s praise for Victor Hugo is too obvious to belabor. (Shoshana Milgram has an excellent essay on the relation between Rand and Hugo in Mayhew’s Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living, very much worth reading.) The puzzle, however, is why Rand was as admiring of him as he was. I don’t know if Hugo’s politics can fairly be characterized as “left,” but “Les Miserables” focuses obsessively and sympathetically on the plight of the poor and downtrodden in ways that Rand not only refused to do, but often seemed to resent when done by others than Victor Hugo. How then to reconcile Rand’s admiration for the Galts and Reardens of the world with Victor Hugo’s lionization of its Jean Valjeans, Cosettes, Fantines, and Gavroches? Having posed that puzzle, I should note that it cuts the other way as well. We live in a culture whose moral leaders unceasingly claim to be sympathetic to the plight of the poor and downtrodden, and angrily attack Rand for her failures of sensitivity to them. How then to reconcile this belligerent demand with the almost surreal outpouring of hostility for Victor Hugo’s much more sustained and authentic sympathy for the poor in Les Miserables—hostility evidenced by the mounds of snark and derision heaped on this most recent film version of the novel? (Click the link above on “Les Miserables” for some examples.)

I would argue that this is a resolvable puzzle, not a paradox. (But you didn’t think I was going to give away the answer, did you?) Sandefur doesn’t precisely set out to explore my puzzle, or set the issue up this way, but I think his comments on “Les Mis,” along with one by Stanley Fish a few months ago in The New York Times, go some way toward resolving it. Like Rand, Hugo functions as a flash point in our culture. He’s too big to dismiss, but too unfashionable to embrace. Sandefur and Fish aside, I don’t think our commentariat has tried hard enough to figure out why.

Sandefur has high (and justifiable) praise in his review for Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Fantine in the film, and it’s worth noting that Hathaway is herself at some level sympathetic to Ayn Rand. Laurie Rice at The Atlas Society has some interesting things to say, both about Hathaway’s interest in Rand, and about her portrayal of Catwoman in the “Batman” series. Meanwhile, The Objective Standard’s website links to an interview with Hathaway in which, Les-miserables-movie-poster1asked about her “sacrifices” for her acting, she insists in good Objectivist fashion that she has never made any. (I intend that last clause as praise, not derision.)

Sandefur’s comments on “Lincoln” bring us face to face with a different set of puzzles. Rand had favorable things to say about Abraham Lincoln as a person, but she had nothing of great significance to say about Lincoln’s politics, or about the American Civil War and its immediate aftermath. So the puzzle here is the mirror image of the Hugo puzzle: why wasn’t she more admiring of Lincoln than she was? In fact, the things she failed to say about the Civil War and its aftermath are in some ways more notable than what she said. She praised Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine and Arthur Ekirch’s Decline of American Liberalism, but said nothing about the fact that both authors simultaneously supported the Union’s war aims in the Civil War while rejecting both presidential and congressional Reconstruction.[1] The combination of claims seems, on the face of it, to be a case of willing the end but not the means: what was the point of freeing the slaves if the country wasn’t going to be reconstructed to protect their freedom? Moving from the Civil War’s immediate aftermath to the twentieth century: Rand movingly praised Alex Haley’s “Roots,” but also ran a book review in one of her periodicals favorably discussing D.W. Griffith’s horrifyingly racist film, “Birth of a Nation,” without saying a word about the film’s explicit praise for the Ku Klux Klan.[2] She elsewhere attacked the Klan, but silence about the Klan’s presence in “Birth of a Nation” is like silence about Hitler’s presence in “Triumph of the Will.” It’s hard not to wonder what it means.

So here’s the puzzle: How does one reconcile Rand’s (apparent) silences on racism with her rejection of racism and her principle of moral sanction—that one should never be silent in the face of an attack on one’s moral principles? Again, this isn’t directly what Sandefur’s film comment is about, but his praise for “Lincoln” ought to get Objectivists to ask why they have had so little to say about his (Lincoln’s) political project, and why they’ve been so partial to authors and artists so hostile to it. This, too, strikes me as a resolvable puzzle, and I’ll be discussing it in a seminar on “Rand on Racism” that I’m doing at The Atlas Society’s Graduate Seminar in Philosophy this summer in Washington, DC.

There are, to my knowledge, no Objectivist historians of Lincoln’s presidency or the U.S. Civil War. Meanwhile, libertarian historians have been quite hostile to Lincoln, to nineteenth-century Republican ideology (a la Lincoln and Sumner), to the Union cause, and to Reconstruction. Sandefur is, as far as I know, one of the few Objectivist/libertarian scholars with a distinctively Objectivist/libertarian interpretation of the Civil War and Lincoln presidency, and a wholeheartedly positive one. We were pleased to publish his pioneering article on the Civil War back in 2006. His little commentary on “Lincoln” advances the discussion one more step.


[1] Rand praised Paterson’s book in a review of it in The Objectivist Newsletter (October 1964), pp. 42-43. Her discussion of Ekirch’s book is “The Intellectual Bankrupcy of Our Age,” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (Meridian, 1990), pp. 85-99. For Paterson’s discussion of the Civil War and Reconstruction, see chs. 13 and 15 of The God of the Machine. For Ekirch’s discussion, see chs. 8-9 of Decline of American Liberalism. I’ve discussed Ekirch’s book here (22 page PDF).

[2] Rand’s praise for Haley’s Roots dates to a Ford Hall Forum talk in 1977, and is recorded in Robert Mayhew ed. Ayn Rand Answers (New American Library, 2005), pp. 208-210. The book review I mentioned in my post is Frank O’Connor’s review of Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot’s Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Prentice Hall, 1969), as told to Ayn Rand, and published in The Objectivist (November 1969), pp. 743-752. “Birth of a Nation” is discussed in a spirit of wholesale moral agnosticism on pp. 745-46 of the review. “Griffith,” we are told, “was accused of bigotry and race prejudice, which he vehemently denied.” The review gives no indication of the most obvious verdict on this accusation, as though the question were somehow a matter of reasonable doubt.


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