Superman as Randian hero?

There’s a bit of irony in how much attention Clark Kent’s resignation from the Daily Planet is getting from the media. The reason he gives up his reporter’s job is that he “believes that news should be about — I don’t know, news?

Still, Glen Weldon’s NPR article on this comic-book issue takes an interesting approach:

But I dunno. Something about that quote — the way it posits a Man of Steel seething with resentment over the fact that his specialness is going unrecognized, unrewarded — introduces discordant and distinctly un-Super notes of Millennial entitlement and, weirdly, Ayn Rand.

And that would represent a fundamental mis-read of the character. The fact that Superman puts the needs of others over those of himself is coded into the character’s DNA. It’s not a thing he does, it is who he is. It’s all he is.

My evaluation is different from Weldon’s, but he’s right that Kent’s resigning because he values his integrity and the kind of work a reporter should be doing is reminiscent of Rand’s heroes, at least in passing. (But then Clark thinks, “I hate myself for doing this,” which none of Rand’s heroes would ever think.) The writer in Atlas Shrugged who quit because she “believes that when one deals with words, one deals with the mind” is especially close to what Clark is saying.

Weldon’s association of Rand’s ideas with “entitlement” and a seething desire for recognition is bizarre. Is he right, though, in saying that Superman’s defining characteristic is putting others’ needs over his own? I haven’t read any recent Superman comics, so I can’t comment on the current version of the character. I did read them regularly in the late fifties and most of the sixties, and that certainly wasn’t the impression he gave then.

The Superman I remember had a passion for justice and a love for the way he could use his powers to defend it. He had a private life which he protected diligently. There’s more than one direction in which writers can take a superhero; the job isn’t altruistic by nature. A superhero may hold that his powers represent an obligation to give up personal concerns and serve those weaker than himself, or may be a neurotic who finds great power more of a burden than a value, but it’s just as possible to portray him as someone whose powers serve his passion for what’s right, who fights because he can make the world a little more like the one he wants to live in.

If I had a superpower, what would I do with it? I don’t think I’d make a good crimefighter by temperament, and I wouldn’t become one just out of an obligation to use my power for the good of humanity. What I’d want would be to use it in the pursuit of knowledge. Just about any superpower I can think of — strength, flying, speed, harnessing energy, x-ray vision — would be useful in some kind of research. Certainly mankind would benefit from that too, but I’d do something like that because it would be what I wanted most.

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Ryan and Rand

Just a quick note on Paul Ryan’s views on Ayn Rand. He’s expressed enough admiration for her in the past to get both the Religious Right and the Religious Left mad at him. However, according to National Review Online in April of this year, he’s said of Rand, “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy.”

Perhaps he’s had a change of views. Perhaps his earlier interest was exaggerated. Perhaps when Romney first suggested he might be a vice presidential candidate, he had a religious conversion of convenience. I don’t know enough about him to decide, but I hope that people won’t assume the views he expresses in the campaign reflect Objectivist positions.

How (not) to approach philosophy

Followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy have a reputation for being very hostile to anyone who disagrees with them on any philosophical issues. Rand herself showed this hostility on a number of occasions. This would seem to be strange behavior on the part of people who claim to be advocates of reason above all else, but it very often happens.

A question I’ve considered for a long time is whether this is a flaw in the philosophy or simply a personality trait that’s filtered down to her followers. Her personality was certainly a factor, but if that were all there was to it, they should have calmed down over the years. However, the treatment of the Institute for Objectivist Studies (now the Atlas Society) by the Ayn Rand Institute not too many years ago exhibited lots of vitriol, and I haven’t seen any indications of change since then.

I think the key is in the way Rand and many of her followers approach philosophy, rather than its particular content. You might think of this as a matter of meta-philosophical premises. Rand held that her philosophy had to be accepted or rejected as an integrated whole, that rejecting any part of it meant rejecting it as a philosophy. This makes for a very fragile edifice; knock out any part of it and the whole thing collapses. It’s no wonder that people who think that way react to any dispute as a fundamental threat.

A related premise is the persistent attribution of “hidden premises” to opponents. Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged does this repeatedly: “The purpose of your struggle is not to know, not to grasp or name or hear the things I shall now state to your hearing: that yours is the Morality of Death.” “But you know the unadmitted answer, refusing to acknowledge what you see, what hidden premise moves your world.” “There is no honest revolt again reason — and when you accept any part of their creed, your motive is to get away with something your reason would not permit you to attempt.” If opposing views are the product of hidden evil, any consideration you give them could be a sign of corruption on your own part.

There is huge value in Rand’s philosophy, but these problems in the meta-philosophical approach have very often kept it from being taken as seriously as it deserves. There are people who approach it without this baggage, but they suffer the additional burden of being denounced by the orthodox. It looked for a while as if the IOS / Atlas Society would bring about a shift in the public understanding of Objectivism, but it has shifted its focus away from addressing basic philosophical issues to focusing on current issues and popular culture, and so isn’t doing nearly as much as it could. Something more is needed.