Monday, September 10, 2012

Wieseltier on Ryan

Leon Wieseltier: His Grief, And Ours | The New Republic
Leon Wieseltier writes the following in The New Republic, commenting on Paul Ryan's fascination with Ayn Rand, in particular her radical individualism.
What, then, is so terrible about self-reliance? Nothing, unless it is promoted into an absolutism, into a cult of sacred egotism, into an “Invictus”-like illusion. (That is another classic of ego-swelling adolescent literature.) The more people do for themselves, the better. The more they assume responsibility for the course of their lives, the better. Who denies these noble banalities? Our agency is the clearest expression of our freedom. We possess extraordinary powers. It is miraculous what the works of human hands have accomplished, except that it is the opposite of miracle, because we are not supernatural beings. 
But Ryan’s concept of self-reliance, the gospel of John Galt (“you are your own highest value ... as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul ...”), is devoid of all humility—it is the very vainglory against which the Bible, Ryan’s ultimate book, warned. My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth! Ryan may have disavowed Rand’s atheism, but he has not quite escaped her revolt against human finitude, her deification of the individual. This radical individualism is a delusion of impotence made over into a delusion of omnipotence. 
It is also, analytically, a colossal mistake. The splendid isolation of the trader, the builder, the innovator, the entrepreneur, the superman, does not exist. It is one of the many flattering legends that successful people in this country devise about themselves. (Like the legend that success is a proof of personal virtue.) The individual—even the individualist individual—is always situated densely in the customs and the conventions of society. Where is Burke when you need him? And where are the otherwise ubiquitous metaphors of the network and the web? If, for conservatives, the market can serve as a model for society, surely it is because the market is web-like, society-wide, a social entity, a thicket of bonds and connections and influences in which creativity flourishes not least because it is enabled and implemented by others who, gratefully or opportunistically, recognize it. Competition is itself a kind of social compact, and in this sense a kind of cooperation. 
It is no wonder that Ryan, and of course Romney, set out immediately to distort the president’s “you didn’t build that speech” in Roanoke, because in complicating the causes of economic achievement, and in giving a more correct picture of the conditions of entrepreneurial activity, Obama punctured the radical individualist mythology, the wild self-worship, at the heart of the conservative idea of capitalism. An honest reading of the speech shows that Romney and Ryan and their apologists are simply lying about it. The businessman builds his business, but he does not build the bridge without which he could not build his business. That is all. Is it everything? Surely it takes nothing away from the businessman, who retains his reason for his pride in his business. But it is not capitalist pride that Romney and Ryan are defending, it is capitalist pridefulness.
I would add...  I seek not a denigration of individual achievement but a recognition by successful individuals of their dependence on others.  No one succeeds on his/her own.  There is the individual. There is the community.   And there is God.  This recognition leads to gratitude.  And this in the final analysis leads to a desire to give back.  This, I believe, nurtures the individual more than all of the successes that might be counted.

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