The Objectivist Movement's Racist, White Backlash, Origins

    In 1967, when the author first learned of Ayn Rand and her writings from fellow students, he was himself an engineering student at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. At that time, Ayn Rand was extremely popular in engineering schools everywhere, most notably at MIT where as I recall, students published a monthly Objectivist newsletter called The Diode. The kind of student who followed Rand stood in marked contrast to other sorts of students of the time, who were for the most part reading and discussing Marx and Mao, participating in civil rights marches, protesting the war in Vietnam, and so forth. That is to say, the followers of Rand saw the world very differently from the more typical college student of the day. In part, this was probably due to the hours of time required to do all the work required by their courses, their total immersion in such, and the simple lack of time for any serious reading or thought about social issues. What is more, many of these students were social outcast themselves, to a certain degree, with a resulting marked tendency toward individualistic thinking. Compounding this further, the vast majority of their courses did absolutely nothing to teach them about the social issues of the day, which other students were mostly learning from each other. Such issues, discussed in so many college classes, were never discussed at all in math, physics, chemistry, or engineering classes. This was mainly because these were purely technical classes, but also in part because the professors generally were conservative and supportive of the Vietnam war. Since one of the primary uses of technology, as well as the major source of funding for new technology research, was the military industrial complex, this was not at all surprising. But even if a math or engineering professor had taken a significant amount of time out of a lecture to seriously discuss the war or other social issues, he most likely would have encountered strong complaints from his students, who were far more interested in their studies.

    But at the same time, while science and engineering students as a lot were fairly conservative, and feared social change as much as anyone, they saw their conservative beliefs challenged constantly, every time they either turned on the TV or the radio, or looked at a daily newspaper. More significantly, the challenge was in large part coming from their own college aged peers, who for the most part had non technical majors. But it also came in the form of big city riots in America’s African American communities. But polite phrases such as “African American” had yet to be invented at this time, so white Chicagoans, by and large, used other far less polite terms to designate people of African descent. For example, a certain mayor Robert V. Sabonjian of the city of Waukegan, some 40 miles north of Chicago, went so far as to call them "scum, hoodlums, bums and animals" during a time of rioting in his city in 1966. This made him a bit of a folk hero among many conservative whites in Chicago. However, popular media personalities, such as Chicago Radio diskjockey Ron Britain took a very different view. Night after night, for weeks, he ridiculed the folk hero of conservative whites, and the city of which he was mayor, exclaiming “there is no Waukegan!” When Sabonjian finally called to ask Britain, on the air, how he could possibly not know that his fine city really did exist, Britain responded, “There is no Robert Sabonjian!”
    Some of the more conservative students were able to simply laugh all of this off, burying themselves in homework, day and night. Others were a bit more shaken, and needed reassurances that they and “level headed” people like Robert V. Sabonjian and were indeed right, and popular radio personalities like Ron Britain were wrong. Simply knowing that their own courses were more difficult and demanding than liberal arts courses (thus proving them to be a good deal smarter than the students who had liberal arts majors), helped. But some tech students needed still more. They wanted logical  proof that they were right— just like the sorts of proofs they encountered in math and science courses. Ayn Rand’s “axiom of existence” which said “existence exists,” and furthermore claimed to “derive” everything from there, was just what Tommy Tech-Hawk’s Doctor ordered. What is more, Objectivism promised a neat and clean system, a system based on reason. And being based on reason, anything which challenged it was by simple logical inference unreasonable— or irrational. Hence, in the final analysis, not only could the latent racism and prejudice of these most conservative of a basically conservative lot of students be rationally and morally justified, all the social unrest of the day, challenging such racism and prejudice, could just as readily be dismissed as people being irrational, and avoiding “the facts of reality.” All the people who used drugs neatly fit into this former category. Poor people and racial minorities who did not know their rightful place in society, and that they needed to stay in their own neighborhoods and behave themselves, were readily lumped into the latter category of those who denied the facts of reality.
    The above may well be a bit of an over generalization, but insofar as it paints the picture of Objectivism as a social movement growing out of racism, elitism, and fear of social change, it is quite accurate. Indeed, save for the exact Sabonjian quote, it is drawn entirely upon personal memories of the time, and based on a countless number of personal encounters and conversations during those years. But regardless of the finer historical details, the main thing to understand is that Objectivism arose primarily as a reactionary movement against the turmoil of the times, and served as a tool for rationalizing— or more precisely, sublimating— racism and prejudice. That is to say, in large measure, it served as a sort of refuge for those who could not help being disturbed by what was going on around them, but at the same time lacked not only the social and psychological skills, but also the moral foundation needed to appropriately deal with it all. Ayn Rand promised to provide all of that in one neat package.

    How, specifically, was Objectivism able to fill this void, and why Objectivism? To begin, one needs to understand that most “students of Objectivism” (as they called themselves) of that time came from deeply religious and dogmatic working class backgrounds. They were never encouraged to think moral and social issues through on their own, so they never gained any experience or competence in doing such. All their lives, they had been simply told what was right, and how God ruled the world. However, that kind of background, and what they had always been told about God’s ways, was somewhat at odds with what they were learning in their science classes, and the sort of analytical thinking they needed to do in order to do their homework and pass their exams. This alone was enough to pose an existential crisis of sorts to many students. Hence, a new dogma to replace the old, and someone new to tell them what was right and what was wrong, was quickly needed; Atlas Shrugged and its chief character John Galt fit the bill perfectly. After reading just one book (albeit an incredibly long one) the world was set straight again; one could go on doing ones homework, taking ones exams, and so forth. There was no longer a need to be bothered by, or feel any sympathy with or empathy toward anyone who did drugs, rioted, or did anything else of the sort. What is more, anyone who didn’t follow Rand could be dismissed a virtual non person, because they were in denial of the facts of reality and the Law of Identity. Such were people who deliberately chose not to live— not to live as rational human beings, the way John Galt said rational human beings should live, which was the only way worth living. What is more, Galt said that all such persons, who failed to live by his pronouncements,  were doomed to perish anyway. Hence, such people were doomed at the outset by virtue of their own irrational choices, and therefore not worth the time of day of any “rational” person who followed Galt.
    Needless to say, the social conditions of the early 21st century are quite a bit different from those of the later 1960s, during which Objectivism made its greatest strides. The political left, although showing signs of a gradual comeback, has been basically dormant for some 30 years. The country as a whole has moved far to the right; and what is more, many of the “radical” ideas of the Students of Objectivism of the 1960a (deregulation of essentially all industries, private outsourcing of various governmental functions, removal of trade barriers, anti-unionism, and so forth ) have now become somewhat accepted and commonplace.
    The main thesis of this web site is that the reason these former “radical” ideas of the Objectivists and students of Objectivism are now commonly accepted, even by people who have little or no acquaintance with Objectivism, is that these ideas have simply been absorbed into the culture. But as this book intends to argue, the ideas so absorbed were specious to begin with— that contrary to what it claimed, Objectivism was and is a highly illogical and irrational set of ideas and beliefs. Least of all was it ever the philosophy of freedom and individual rights which it purported to be. Nonetheless, the culture has indeed absorbed these ideas, and what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called a “sick society,” is now for the most part an even sicker society than it was more than 35 years ago— some cosmetic improvements here and there notwithstanding.
    This book makes no pretenses as to having any sort of magic cure for what ails our society. However, it does endeavor to examine some of the reasons why, in so many important respects, humanity has moved backward instead of forward over the last few decades. While such an examination will certainly not change history, it is the author’s hope that it may offer some guidance to those who endeavor every day, in one way or another, to put it on a more productive path.