First off, I'm confining this post to the subject of America's historical trends. Second, I'm very highly optimistic for this country's future. I think that the intellectual advancement this country desperately needs is only a matter of time. The existence of the internet just on its own pretty much ensures it, especially when resources like the Ayn Rand Lexicon and the collection of articles and essays, video and audio, and the Ayn Rand multimedia archive at the ARI website are made freely available. It's only a matter of time before a growing number of up-and-coming intellectuals discover the treasure trove of wisdom contained just in these resources alone, providing an effective counterweight to the rampant anti-intellectualism encountered on "infotainment" sites (e.g., YouTube). It's nice to see the ARI adapt to the information needs of young intellectuals in the internet age. The Lexicon, especially, being made available online serves as a marvelous corrective to the ridiculous, out-of-context, dis-integrative distortions of Rand's ideas that have floated around out there for way too long; the distorters simply cannot get away with that shit any longer and maintain a semblance of intellectual credibility.
Third, I'm certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Ayn Rand's ideas are the most effective vehicle we have today for advancing Aristotelianism (in the broad sense) in the contemporary world. This is not wishful thinking, fawning devotion, or anything of the sort, but a sober observation of reality. There's just no way that the parallels between Aristotle's systematizing empiricism and Ayn Rand's can go unnoticed, ignored, evaded, etc. for much longer. Certainly the Intellectual Class has the least excuse for continuing its policy of base, ignoble and vicious intellectual laziness (born of a pathological disregard of the capitalist ethos) in this area. The better intellectuals are waking up and getting with the program.
Fourth, my expectations of the future are conditioned by my understanding of past trends leading up to this point. Here's where the (again, incomplete) analysis of this country's historical trends begins.
In 1961, Miss Rand gave a lecture at the Ford Hall Forum, entitled "The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age." As evidence of her thesis, I offer the fact that no other intellectual figure was remotely close to presenting the ethical positions she presented in a paper that same year, "The Objectivist Ethics." The fact is that (almost?) no one was presenting the robust neo-Aristotelian voice for America, in 1961, aside from Ayn Rand. Certainly no well-recognized public figure was doing so. The leading voices for "conservatism" at the time, Buckley and Goldwater, don't even compare.
In 1961, America was a year away from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The young people of today - especially the products of the intellectual hellholes known as the public schools - have almost no frame of reference for understanding what led to that crisis, assuming they could even tell you what it was (which is doubtful). The only concrete they know that might be in the same ballpark is 9/11. Otherwise, it's like a distant memory in our nation's consciousness. A nation beat into concrete-boundedness by its leading influential philosophies doesn't grasp things long-term, as distinct from a range-of-the moment mentality which observes a stream of ever-new concretes with no rational policy of integration to identify their nature or a wider pattern.
The insanity exemplified by the Cuban Missile Crisis, then, perhaps can't be communicated to today's intellectually-dysfunctional mainstream. Hell, the underlying nature of it probably couldn't be identified or communicated even back then, except by You-Know-Who. But people did experience the insanity first-hand, most concretely, urgently, and terrifyingly. What many observers at the time (or now) did not know, was that the crisis was an illustration of the power of ideas. The dominant ideology of the age, after all, was Marxism. Rand experienced first-hand the effects of Marxist ideology implemented fully and consistently, knew the principle involved, and watched as America floundered - intellectually bankrupt - in the face of this massive evil. It's amazing she managed through the insane intellectual vacuum of the time as well as she did.
At least Marxism is defunct and discredited now, in 2011, which helps feed my optimism for America's future intellectual and existential growth.
But is America any less intellectually bankrupt now than it was in 1961? Has the dominant mainstream mentality in America changed fundamentally in the last 50 years? True, the stage is much better set for a Randian-style intellectual revolution than it was 50 years ago - for one thing, there are a lot more people who think like Rand now than 50 years ago - but what's the present intellectual state of America as a whole? If you took our current crop of politicians, media figures, leading Ivy League academics, corporatists and the rest of the Washington Establishment, and placed them into the same situation President Kennedy faced in 1962, would they be just as ideologically helpless as he was? I think they would be. I think this is ample reason to think that - thus far - Miss Rand's ideas have actually had next to zero impact on policymaking in Washington (the ignorant shrieks of leftist scum notwithstanding).
Presidents Kennedy and Obama both exemplify the ethos of the cultural elites (in this sorry excuse for a culture): Pragmatism. The same pressure-group warfare and pull-peddling, which is an inevitable byproduct of cultural pragmatism, is characteristic of Washington now just as much as it was in 1961. The same "military-industrial complex" the outgoing president warned of in January of that year is still well in place, determining the country's direction. This is what happens when ideas are cynically forsaken for short-term advantage.
A major difference, now, is that the country is on the hook for the ultimate effects of its long-term course to the tune of tens of trillions of dollars. Call it the Chickens' Homecoming if you like. Combine tens of trillions in fiscal obligations coming due with rampant anti-intellectualism and cynicism, and you get the state of things in America today.
If there is an account-overdrawn "end of the line" for pragmatism, this is it.
Put that way, the nation is arguably as intellectually bankrupt as it was in 1961.
This is hardly surprising if we take a long-term outlook on things. Given the nation's intellectual course over the past half-century, why should it be any different? The nation's Intellectual Class is defaulting now just as much as it was then. The Comprachicos are fucking up the minds of the young as much as ever. The country's politics are as devoid of ideas as ever. If one didn't know the actual long-term cause of our situation, one might despair of our country's situation and maybe even give up on this country's future. Some folks are doing just that.
But what got me interested in writing this post was the question: when did this country reach an absolute low-point intellectually? Given the "lag time" between the ideas formulated by the philosophers and their existential effects on a culture, could things have gotten even worse at some point between 1961's "The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age" and now? If a nation's intellectual course is like a supertanker, then even the heroic efforts of an Ayn Rand can only do so much to arrest a slide toward oblivion. There's intellectual bankruptcy, and then there's INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY. I think that if we actually did have the latter, we'd be doomed as a nation. A nation cannot survive if it has reached the capital-letters stage of intellectual bankruptcy.
This kind of analysis inevitably leads to creative imagination of counterfactual scenarios. Namely: what would this country's existential state be like now were it not for Ayn Rand? Let's say that young Alyssa Rosenbaum was murdered by the rabid Marxists back in Russia before she could get out. Who might possibly pick up the slack in this country? Among 20th-century intellectuals, who comes close to the qualities of mind and spirit exhibited by Ayn Rand? Who among them could possibly be compared to Aristotle as an intellectual, an Atlas that could effectively carry America forward on her shoulders? Without The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and all the rest, just how much of a gutter would we be in? Would someone step up to fill the void?
We will never know, given free will, but if we were to use the pro-capitalist intellectuals aside from Rand - led by Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Rothbard, and Nozick - as our signposts, what would we have today? For one thing, given the power of philosophy over economics, I think Rothbard and Nozick would, in this counterfactual world, be more prominent and influential than they actually are, given their philosophical bent. Rothbard's wide-ranging scholarship would still have led him to the "natural law" tradition, but he was an economist by training and profession and as such I don't think he would have come close to making the identifications in ethics and epistemology that Rand did, and therefore - given the primacy of philosophy to the course of a culture - Rothbard simply would not have provided the intellectual defense for capitalism we need. Nozick for his part would have done pretty much the same thing in the absence of Rand, and I don't see any evidence that he was Aristotelian enough to provide the intellectual defense we need, either. Hayek's defense of
That is to say, going forward from 2011, the counterfactual-America's course in absence of Ayn Rand's ideas and influence would probably not be pretty. There'd still be that tens of trillions of fiscal obligations coming due, rampant anti-intellectualism, an ever-entrenched out-of-touch Intellectual Class . . . and intellectual bankruptcy with no end in sight, no ideas to save us from potential ruin. The progress of Aristotelianism in the academy is happening too slowly; Aristotle's mainstream-assigned stature as one of the "Big Three" simply doesn't do justice to his actual Atlas-like stature. Too many folks miss the point about Aristotle as it is. And who knows how many more young intellectuals would be sucked in by Nietzsche and existentialism in Rand's absence....
So, back to the question raised earlier: was there a lowest point between 1961 and now? If you imagine being able to plot our intellectual course on a graph and draw a trend-curve, where does it hit the lowest gutter-point? Was there an "end of the line" we might be able to point to, the point where the chickens had most definitely come home to roost?
I'm thinking that things bottomed out for the country sometime between 1960 and 1980. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis, then Vietnam and the draft, then the Great Society programs, then the intellectually-bankrupt counter-culture which ran its course quickly soon enough, then Nixon and his wage-and-price controls, then the Democrats jumping into the gutter with McGovern, then Watergate, then Carter and his stagflation and malaise and lust in his heart and the Iran hostage crisis and detente with the Soviets. As much as Rand hated Reagan, he did appear to provide a welcome relief to all that, with his tax cuts and presidential change of tune toward the Commie bastards, while Rand's Reagan-related fears on the abortion front never materialized. This is far from saying that Reagan was some kind of panacea, much less by political standards, but starting with Reagan the country was showing some improvement for the better. Keep in mind that a nation's politicians are only a symptom, not a cause.
Culturally and politically, the era of the Nixon presidency pretty much did it for Rand. The atmosphere of the time made Rand too discouraged to continue cultural commentary via her newsletters. She remarked quite clearly during the 1970s that the culture had sunk too low to be worth commenting on regularly, and while she couldn't stand Reagan, she did note that the country did appear to be taking a promising turn to the Right. Something was changing for the better in the late 1970s. If I had to name some kind of lowest gutter-point, the trough on the trend-curve, it was probably the period from Watergate to the Carter presidency.
Now, one thing to note in this connection is Rand's observation that while the country was taking a turn to the Right starting in the mid-'70s, the Intellectuals were stuck in a McGovernite mentality, and that never before was the chasm between the Intellectuals and the American people so obvious. I'd say that this condition has pretty much held up ever since.
If there was a cashing-in, a chickens' homecoming, a gutter-point in the nation's intellectual condition, I'd have to say it was concretized by John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). The lasting prominence of this work among the nation's Intellectuals means basically a 40-year-and-counting gutter as far as that goes. The American people don't want, don't need, and don't care about A Theory of Justice. They haven't bought into the confiscate-and-redistribute ethos at its core. They're not interested in being told they are being unjust for not following its prescriptions to "correct for the contingencies of nature" through coercive confiscation and redistribution. They're not interested in McGovernism. If this be intellectualism, then the American people deserve at least some credit for being anti-intellectual. There's only so much fucking insanity flowing from the Ivory Tower that they can put up with. There's only so much bullshit rationalistic contrivance to justify un-American redistributive policies that they can handle. Absent a commonsensical Aristotelian alternative, you can't really blame Americans for their pragmatic rejection of the Intellectuals.
Once again, compare the Original Position getting its own whole entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia, with the truly fucking disgusting neglect of individualism there.
("[The intellectuals] are a group that holds a unique prerogative: the potential of being either the most productive or the most parasitical of all social groups.")
I can hardly blame Miss Rand for her disgusted reaction ("An Untitled Letter") to the arrival of A Theory of Justice on the scene. Her "Untitled Letter" was by no means scholarly, but the author of "This is John Galt Speaking" had little patience for dignifying basically the same shit she already dispensed with quite adequately in her novels. In a big way it's a sense-of-life thing, whether one finds either individualistic achievement or coercive confiscation desirable and ennobling. How else do you expect someone with Rand's sense of life to react to Rawls's concept of justice? Does it really matter how nice a guy Rawls may have been, or how appealing his arguments are to academics, when none of it would get past John Galt's bullshit detectors?
I mean, if Rawls and Galt were ever to actually get into a dialogue, how does Galt not trounce and/or convert Rawls? Hell, just by getting people to adopt and absorb the ideas in Galt's radio address - namely, the encouragement to use one's mind to the fullest - the "Difference Principle" becomes a total irrelevancy. If Rawls's reputation means anything, he'd graciously concede this, repudiate A Theory of Justice, and jump on the Randian team to come on in for the big win. And that's how - short, short version - a neo-Aristotelian dialectic dispenses with and supersedes A Theory of Justice.
(This gets into another counterfactual analysis: if Rawls weren't so out-of-touch and got on the winning team early, and therefore never wrote A Theory of Justice, just how much sooner would we see the country advance to intellectual maturity? Just how much precious intellectual resources have been wasted due to A Theory of Justice throwing so many intellectuals off the scent? Just how much sooner would a Rand-Norton synthesis have happened? Just how much sooner would the professional Humanities gotten its act together? (For that matter, how much sooner would the intellectual revolution have happened had Nathaniel Branden not been so dishonest to Rand and to all his readers regarding their '68 break?))
So, to sum up: the long-term, large-scale trend over the last 50 years in America appears to have been dominated by a pragmatic non-intellectualism in combination with an out-of-touch intellectual class, with little cultural improvement on net over that time, with a trough sometime in the 1970s, and the stage much more well set for future improvement than it was 50 years ago, due to the effects of education over time and accompanying generational shift. Things are, at long last, actually looking bright! :-)