Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Let Sophomores Be Sophomoric

Here's Jonathan Chait:
To me, a candidate whose worldview was shaped by Rand is exactly tantamount to a candidate whose worldview was shaped by Karl Marx. It should be disqualification unless it's clear that the candidate in question has completely broken from his past. Ayn Rand was a total nut.
I disagree!  Not on the nut part -- indeed, if you somehow missed Chait's excellent Ayn Rand essay, put aside some time and read it.  Great piece.

But as far as the question of how terrible it is to find out that someone was overly enamored of Rand (or Marx) in college, I think Chait is wrong (and Ezra Klein is right).  It's not as if someone whose "worldview was shaped" by Rand would wind up all goofy, just because Rand was, in the end, pretty much wrong about everything.  If what someone takes away from a Rand flirtation (or, perhaps, an intense but short Rand infatuation) is an appreciation for individual autonomy and market economies...well, whatever one thinks of those beliefs, they're not beyond the pale of American political discourse.  I don't think that sort of progression requires one to repudiate Rand.

(Marx?  Well, Marx wasn't wrong about everything -- just economics and some wild, excessive rhetoric.  After that, there's a lot of interesting albeit contested ideas.  Again, if after a bit someone winds up taking away the idea that class matters in politics and that political systems are related to economic structure, or for that matter just gains some sympathy for the poor...once again, right or wrong, that doesn't make you goofy).

Much better is Matt Yglesias on Rand, the other day.  Oh, and I should mention the context here, which is Greg Sargent's reporting on Rand Paul.


  1. Comments like that are why Chait often drives me nuts. Ayn Rand isn't a particularly respected thinker, I think for good reason, but Karl Marx certainly is among a number of serious people (yes, largely in universities, but that is where a lot of the thinking about our society is happening, which should theoretically count for something). For example if one does sociology, one's worldview is in part shaped by Marx, since his ideas helped invent the discipline. Likewise, very few serious and prominent historians have not at least engaged with Marx's ideas, and many are deeply indebted to them. Social history as a field is unimaginable without Marx. Is a candidate who is deeply familiar with the history of unions in American automatically disqualified? Because Marx is totally in his or her head whether they know it or not.

    I'm not a Marxist and I certainly think Marx was wrong about a number of things, but he was incredibly insightful on others and I've certainly profited from reading him closely. To not take him seriously as a thinker smells more of fear than actual conviction. I would argue that Chait's attitude--which is common among the liberal intelligentsia--is actually a vestige of the Cold War and McCarthysim, during which any kind of engagement with Marxist thought became strictly verboten.

    I have no idea whether Chait has actually read Marx seriously or with an open mind, but if not then his attitude is deeply anti-intellectual. It's also incredibly intolerant of pluralism in politics, since simply holding an unpopular worldview hardly disqualifies one from being a candidate--indeed we should welcome candidates with unorthodox ideas. Democracy does better with a diversity of political philosophies and becomes more impoverished when folks like Chait decree from TNR and similar publications that people who read Marx or Rand or whomever should be completely ignored. If lots of folks suddenly are captivated by Marx (or Rand, perish the thought) then that immediately becomes a legitimate part of American politics even if Jon Chait doesn't like it. There's a certain elitism underlying Chait's comment, though I'm guessing he would not think of it that way.

  2. Pretty much agree with everything you say about Marx -- but had to jump in to point out that in my experience, there are very few sociologists who are remotely within the mainstream of American political discourse. Not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with that...

    I think I'd be a bit more generous to Chait (now that I've done the item and all); after all, it was the final paragraph in a blog post. The problem is that Marx isn't actually parallel to Rand; he should have said, oh, Chomsky, maybe. If you read Chait as making a strong statement (reading "worldview shaped" as having spent considerable time in the cult of Rand/Marx), well, I'd still disagree, but it isn't (if that's what he meant) saying that people shouldn't read those thinkers, just that anyone who went overboard may well be wacky.

  3. "...there are very few sociologists who are remotely within the mainstream of American political discourse."

    That's an understatement! We can add it to the list of reasons why sociologists don't usually run for office--I think it's probably a pretty long list.

    It might be interesting to debate which of the major humanities/social science disciplines is most likely to produce a number of viable candidates for office. Actually after thinking about it for five seconds I realized it wouldn't be that interesting.

  4. Well, there have been several economists and several political scientists who have served in Congress (plus the political scientist president). Historians have Newt Gingrich, not sure who else. Can't think of anyone else who would qualify.


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