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Reflections on Ayn Rand and Campus Culture: An Interview with Greg Salmieri (Part Two)

Dr. Greg Salmieri holds a fellowship in philosophy at the Anthem Foundation and currently teaches at Rutgers University. His published work focuses on Aristotle’s epistemology and ethics and Ayn Rand’s philosophy and novels. Of special note here, he is coeditor with the late Allan Gotthelf of the forthcoming Companion to Ayn Rand, the first volume to offer a comprehensive scholarly treatment of Rand’s corpus (including her novels, philosophical essays, and her analysis of the events of her times). The Undercurrent’s J.A. Windham sat down with Dr. Salmieri to gain insight on the importance of the Companion to the academy and Rand’s enduring relevance to student culture today. The following is Part Two of that interview. You can read Part One here.

DSC00478TU: Let’s turn now to campus culture, which has made national headlines in recent months. As you mention in the book, Rand was especially critical of the campus “Free Speech Movement” of the mid-1960’s, distilled in the riots at Berkeley in 1964. What did Rand take to be the essence of that movement, and how can her views inform our thinking on some of today’s student groups?

Dr. Salmieri: She saw the events at Berkeley and, later, on other campuses, as an attempt to erase the distinction between speech and action and to intimidate others into adopting their political positions. The students objected to Berkeley’s policies concerning what political activities were permitted on parts of the campus, so they seized control of the campus and did things like turning over police cars and using them as rostrums. The students could have worked to persuade the administration that their preferred policies were right. If that didn’t work, they could have withdrawn and gone to another school—or, since Berkeley is a public university, they could have attempted to persuade the legislators or the voters who elected them. This is the peaceful, civilized way to settle disputes. Instead, the students resorted to force. In effect, they said: “You must grant our demands, because we’re a big gang who can physically bar your way, disrupt campus life, and destroy property.” We’ve seen a reprise of this in the “Occupy” movement, and more recently in the spectacle of student groups occupying quads and administrators’ offices and seizing control of forums to read lists of demands.

The students at Berkeley were outraged that the existing policy prohibited certain sorts of speech on campus property, and some of the current student groups are outraged that campus policies don’t prohibit certain types of speech that they think is offensive. So in this narrow respect they could be seen as opposite, but the groups are the same in that they are trying to impose their preferred policies by physical force and intimidation, rather than by persuasion. The recent groups are more consistent, because the whole idea of free speech, which the ‘60’s students claimed to be for, rests on the distinction between speech and action. If “speech” extends to trespass and physical intimidation, then of course it cannot be free, since the “speech” of some will amount to violence against others.

This blurring of the line between speech and action was part of a broader development that Rand thought was going on in the 1960’s. She called it “anti-ideology”—the attempt to undermine the concepts and principles that people need to think rationally about political issues. Without such concepts, a nation is reduced to the status of warring gangs each of which is united, not by any shared convictions, but by factors such as race, locality, profession, or income. Anti-ideology is popular when people are acting on motives that they are unwilling to admit (to themselves or others), and Rand thought that this was the case across the political spectrum in the ‘60’s.

For decades, the political left had been pushing for ever greater government control over individuals’ lives. The only consistent implementation of their ideas is totalitarianism, of which communism and fascism are both variants, and the horrors of that system were obvious to any honest observer in the aftermath of World War II. So the leftists didn’t want to admit what they stood for. But their opponents on the political right were unwilling to embrace the opposite system, capitalism, because it was seen as “selfish” and “materialistic.” So both sides sought to evade the fundamental issue at stake between them and to focus on narrow policy questions, without reference to the principles needed to understand them or rationally evaluate them.

As a result, American politics was reduced to pressure group warfare. Without recourse to the principle of individual rights, which enables people to live together in non-sacrificial harmony, factions multiplied and formed uneasy alliances that enabled momentary majorities to use elections as an opportunity to sacrifice minorities. Rand saw what the students at Berkeley were doing as a more naked version of this same pressure group warfare. Instead of imposing mob power at the ballot box, as their parents were doing, the students were trying to impose it in crudely physical terms, out on the streets.

The source of the anti-ideology, in Rand’s view, was intellectuals—especially professors of philosophy and the humanities—and it seeped out into the culture from the universities. So she didn’t see it as any surprise that violence erupted first on campuses. That’s where young people go to find the ideas that will enable them to make sense of the world and chart their course through life. Instead, their professors gave them an anti-ideology that was a rationalization for imposing their whims by brute force. Of course, the professors of today include many members of the ‘60’s student movement, many of whom are teaching variants of these same doctrines. We can see their influence in some of the current groups occupying campuses. But these professors have been in place for decades now, and campuses were relatively peaceful in the ‘80s, ‘90’s or early 2000’s, so there must be other factors responsible for the recent eruptions.

TU: Many of the recent controversies have surrounded race. Is this another commonality with the ‘60’s movement?

Dr. Salmieri: Thanks for bringing that up. The history of racism and anti-racism movements in America, is something I’ve started thinking a lot about over the past few years—stimulated in part by my research for the Companion’s chapter on Rand’s cultural commentary. It’s a complex issue that I’m still working to understand. Since the early 20th Century, there have been competing strands in movements objecting to the persecution of African Americans and other minorities. One strand, which was predominant in the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, is individualistic—it seeks to ensure that all individuals’ rights are protected regardless of skin color, and it aspires towards a culture in which each individual is judged by the content of his character. This strand embraces the essential Enlightenment principles of America’s founding and urges us to apply them more consistently.

There’s a second strand that’s basically Marxist in origin, and sees racism as inherent in capitalism. Of course, they have a very different understanding of capitalism than Rand’s, which I sketched earlier. Marxists see people not as individuals, but as members of classes with conflicting class interests. Capitalism, on this view, is the system characterized by the dominance of a property-owning class that exploits the class of wage-laborers. Marxists see racism as one aspect of this oppressive system, and they see individualism and the concept of “rights” as parts of the apparatus by which the privileged class maintains its power. So rather than appealing to the justice of America’s core principles to fight racism, the Marxists take the persecution of racial minorities as a sign that the American system is unjust to the core and needs to be replaced.

Traditional Marxists view racism (along with nationalism and religious factionalism) as a means by which the dominant class sows dissension among the laborers, so that they don’t recognize their common class interest and rebel. This sort of Marxism co-existed with the individualist strand in the civil rights movement of the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, and both strands promoted racial integration and color blindness (though not always by the same means or for the same reasons). In the mid-‘60’s, there emerged what we might call a neo-Marxist view that understood classes in racial or ethnic terms, rather than strictly economic ones. On this view, Europeans or whites are the oppressor group, and modern history is the story of how these whites oppressed people of color in myriad ways the world-over. It’s not just business owners, but all whites who are part of the privileged oppressor class, and people of color need to band together and overthrow this essentially unjust social order. This kind of racial rhetoric was part of the student movement of the mid- to late-‘60’s, and it went along with a general denigration of the West, the Industrial Revolution (which traditional Marxists celebrated), and Enlightenment values. Unfortunately, we see this same kind of thinking driving the purportedly anti-racist groups that have garnered the most attention on college campuses recently.

Since I expect that most of your readers are opposed, as I am, to the tactics and demands of these groups, let me just say that it would be a real mistake to let our objections to these groups cause us to dismiss concerns about racism. It remains a real problem in America, and I think that only individualists have the conceptual resources to understand this problem and combat it effectively. But it takes work to apply those resources to the issue, and I encourage people to educate themselves about the history and current state of race relations, and to rethink the issue from an individualist perspective. I’m early in this process myself, so I still have more questions than answers.

TU: Shifting topics a bit, Rand also wrote in her later years of an “American sense of life” that worked to restrain the growth of statism. Could you explain the dynamic between these two ideas? Are there any remnants of them today at play?

Dr. Salmieri: A “sense of life” is a kind of emotional, implicit, equivalent of a philosophy. It is a view of what’s important and possible and good for human beings, held emotionally and expressed through the personality of an individual or the characteristic way of life of a culture. Rand thought that the American sense of life embodied a lot of the values of the Enlightenment and of the American founding: an individualistic, can-do spirit, a respect for producers, a “don’t tread on me” ethos of valuing personal freedom, and the kind of benevolence and goodwill that we talked about earlier in connection with Rand’s view of trade.  She thought that this sense of life had protected America, to a large extent, from the rising tide of collectivism in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In the late ‘60’s, and especially in the 1972 election, she thought it caused people to reject the “New Left” (including the campus movement we discussed earlier). That election is widely interpreted as the beginning of a trend towards smaller government that continued more or less though Clinton’s presidency.

But Rand held that a sense of life is not enough to sustain and direct a movement towards capitalism—towards freedom. For that, we need the sort of philosophical revolution Rand represents. I think the developments since the ‘70’s show that she’s right. Think of the movements that arose in opposition to the rejected “big government” left. The main one is the conservative movement, that ties capitalism to a particularly anti-reason and anti-happiness form of Christianity, which they seek to impose on us all. They so hate sex and an individual’s liberty to plan her own life that they evade the difference between an embryo and a person, and demand that the latter be sacrificed to the former. Then there’s the Libertarian movement, that ties freedom and what you might have thought of as Rand’s values, to anarchism; they celebrate the political violence of the New Left, and join them in villainizing America. Of course, there are some better elements in both movements, just as there are some better elements on the political left. These better elements across are moved by the American—and, more broadly, Enlightenment—sense of life. In some cases they’ve taken inspiration from Rand, and I think they’re responsible for some positive political developments recently, such as the recognition of gay marriage, the gradual decriminalization of cannabis, and the Citizens United decision (which lessened a major impediment to genuine free speech). But, to say the least, none of these movements is a consistent defender of individual rights. Such a movement can’t be based on mere emotion, and on fragments of Enlightenment ideas mixed in with contradictory premises. It needs a coherent philosophical foundation. That’s what I think Rand provides.

TU: In the context of what you’ve said about the importance of explicit philosophy, and of Rand’s view of the importance of intellectuals like academic professors, what role do you hope the Companion will play in the academy and more broadly?

Dr. Salmieri: I’ve indicated why I think Rand’s ideas are so needed. It’s a good sign that people—whether they agree with her or not—are beginning to sense her importance. But most of what is written about her, positive or negative, is superficial. It’s an initial, sense-of-life response to her novels or her reputation that hasn’t been followed up by a serious exploration of her ideas. The Companion is a resource for those who want to go beyond their initial reactions and grapple with her philosophy.

I should mention that since the book is part of a reference series, it’s priced for university libraries, so I worry that many of the students who would like to read it won’t be able to afford it. For anyone in that position, I encourage you to check it out from your library. If they don’t have it, you can probably get it through interlibrary loan. And, of course, you can ask the librarian to order it. I’d certainly appreciate that, and there may be other students at your college who would appreciate it as well.

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