A Professor’s Tribute to Ayn Rand is a Dramatic Reminder of the Value of Individualism

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A philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Jason Hill, has written a remarkable piece in Salon. In it, Hill recounts a story familiar to many of us at The Undercurrent: how, as a young man, he first discovered the writings of Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

But Hill’s story is one of the more dramatic versions of this story that we’ve heard. Hill grew up as a gay atheist in Jamaica, a country he describes as permeated by religious mysticism and as “the most homophobic culture in the world.” Hill suggests that Ayn Rand’s commitment to reason and individualism empowered his quest to break free from the chains of Jamaica’s parochial culture and seek a career as an intellectual in the United States.

Hill recounts how Rand’s ideas helped him pierce through one conventional assumption after another. Speaking of the prejudice he had encountered against homosexuals, Hill writes:

From Rand’s philosophy, regardless of her personal opinion of homosexuality, I conjectured that if I were to tell her that I was gay that . . .  the only rational answer she could give regarding gay sex or any sex for that matter was: It had better be good. . . . The logical application of her theory of sex eased the psychological pain I felt over being gay in a society in which homosexuality was and continues to be criminalized. Ayn Rand was and is — through her propagation of individual rights, of the sovereignty and inviolable right of the individual to choose for himself a rational course for his own happiness — a most stalwart emancipator of gay oppression.

Hill also affirms a point which TU has made before: that one  should neither be proud nor ashamed of one’s sexual orientation (gay or straight).  Growing up, he saw himself as an individual who “happened to be gay,” and rejected all attempts to politicize his gay identity.

Following the same thread, Hill explains how Rand’s individualism helped him understand and deal with racism:

I immediately gave him the answer I thought Ayn Rand would have given him. Racism, I explained, is a form of psychosis — a break with reality. To judge and appraise someone solely on the basis of arbitrary and nonmoral attributes such as skin pigmentation and so-called racial identity is not only irrational and nonsensical it is evil. You never grant metaphysical importance to evil or the irrational because they are impotent. Period. Rand, I explained to him, had discounted the metaphysical value of that which could only destroy but never create.

How then does one respond to racists who see individuals only through the lens of a collective identity? Hill’s own response, which we presume refers to his own way of thinking about his ethnic status, is enlightening: “I have never ever in my life sought to actively fight racism. I have simply adduced myself as evidence of its absolute stupidity and irrationality.”

What’s most remarkable about the piece, however, is Hill’s commitment to individualism amidst the stifling conformity of academia. In his academic work, he has championed “cosmopolitanism,” a doctrine that asks us to move “beyond blood identities” and embrace the fact that we must define ourselves as individuals, a view that puts him starkly at odds with academically fashionable multiculturalism. And he is critical of academia’s rejection of Ayn Rand:

As an academic philosopher of almost two decades and the author of books in philosophy that have little to do with Rand’s philosophy, what surprises me most about Rand’s system is how startlingly original it is against the backdrop of  Western philosophy. This intellectual insurgent was deeply insightful and perceptive. Contemporary academics mired largely within their own cults of irrelevancy are resentful and tormented by her popularity.

Hill does not seem to be tempted to join these academics. He rejects their claim that growing up means compromising one’s principles and abandoning one’s ideals. Why then do critics reject Ayn Rand’s idealistic individualism as naive? Hill offers the following compelling speculation:

People think of Ayn Rand, I am convinced, 30 years after encountering and studying her philosophy and after deeply observing her detractors, and they feel retrospective shame and guilt over abandoning their idealistic selves—the sense of immeasurable benevolence and optimism they had known at 16 and irrevocably lost, a loss that cost them their vitality and a purpose for living on earth. Celebrating exaltation, heroism and achievement they had learned to sacrifice the best within themselves for a non-recuperable price. Once you you’ve sold your soul, it is no longer yours. You cannot recover it. In enshrining mediocrity such individuals had alienated themselves further from their deepest potential.

Hill is of course echoing  Rand’s own meditation on the popularity of The Fountainhead, a passage from her introduction to the novel which has inspired many of us at TU:

Some give up at the first touch of pressure; some sell out; some run down by imperceptible degrees and lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it. Then all of these vanish in the vast swamp of their elders who tell them persistently that maturity consists of abandoning one’s mind; security, of abandoning one’s values; practicality, of losing self-esteem. Yet a few hold on and move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose and reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential.

At The Undercurrent, we are dedicated to raising awareness of Ayn Rand’s noble vision of man’s nature and life’s potential. We urge our readers to consider our message, “It’s your life. Own it.” And we are committed to helping inspire more young people to give shape, purpose and reality to their fire. Thank you, Jason Hill, for showing us that we are not alone.

Posted by on April 29, 2014. Filed under Philosophy, Spring 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry