While browsing the on-line New York Times this past Saturday morning, I spotted a headline link containing the name “Ayn Rand” and clicked on it. The link took me to the Business page and an article the opening sentences of which proclaim Rand’s bulky novel, Atlas Shrugged, to be: “One of the most influential business books ever written …[and] still drawing readers; it ranks 388th on Amazon.com’s best-seller list. (“Winning,” by John F. Welch Jr., at a breezy 384 pages, is No. 1,431.)” I agree 100% with that assessment of Atlas Shrugged, but feel that its impact has extended far beyond the business community per se.
The occasion of the article is the impending 50th anniversary of its publishing date. The year 1957 also saw the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, the 50th anniversary of which has been acknowledged by the publication of the legendary, unedited novel as Kerouac typed it out on a “scroll” of wrapping paper. I am of the opinion that each of these two novels, published in the same year, was a major influence on American culture in the last half of the 20th century. These influences, evolved, and changed, but traceable back to their sources, are with us yet.
I’m not going to go into the seminal impetus provided by On the Road as the founding document, along with Allen Ginsberg’s infamous poem, “Howl,” to the Counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and its residual effects on my Boomer generation. What I want to focus on here is the message of Atlas Shrugged as symptomatic of one half of a rift—a virtual cognitive dissonance—that I perceive to be at the very heart of American cultural and political conservatism.
The wikipedia article defines cognitive dissonance as: “a psychological term describing the uncomfortable tension that may result from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs, or from experiencing apparently conflicting phenomena.” I maintain that conservative economic values, which glorify the acquisition and hoarding of wealth; conservative social values, characterized by the establishment of a rigid meritocracy; and conservative civic values, which lead to a form of aggressive nationalism, characterized by militarism, neocolonialism, and a nearly constant state of war, are all in 180-degree opposition to the New Testament doctrines of Christianity proclaimed as central to the moral conduct of their lives by the vast majority of those Americans who characterize themselves as “conservative.” Rather than characterizing such people as hypocrites, consciously doing the very opposite of what their, often fundamentalist, Christianity would prescribe as partaking of Christian virtue, I am suggesting that, while thinking in the socio-political conservative mode, they are unaware of, and unable to access, strictly Christian values. Similarly, when directly engaged in religious activities, they are apt to say, and temporarily believe in their very hearts, things which, while in political mode, they vote against.
Since 1957, and my boyhood, there have been various conservative slogans, similar in their employment of catchy consonance, which the conservative elite has employed in an effort to persuade the socially conservative segments of the American population to vote for their political candidates. These have included: The Moral Majority (who would not want to belong to that?); Morning in America (sometimes we would all like to start over from scratch, right?); and, most recently, Compassionate Conservatism (none dare call it oxymoron). Read up on them. I maintain that each of them embodies a campaign by a wealthy, entrepreneurial elite to use so-called "hot button" issues, such as crime, abortion, homosexuality, and war, to distract the electorate from "kitchen table issues" and persuade middle- to lower-middle class Americans to vote for candidates who will serve the interests of the capitalist class against those of people who work for a living. The cognitive dissonance of the conservative electorate makes these wholly conscious tactics, as deployed by the conservative elite, largely successful.
There are various categorizations and classifications of Christian virtues. I have decided to use, for these purposes, a Catholic list. As Catholics are the first, and still the most numerous Christians, and as all contemporary Christian doctrine is either taken directly from the Roman Catholic doctrine, or has evolved out of, or in opposition to, it, this would seem to be the appropriate place to start. Once again, wikipedia has been useful in providing both a definitional paragraph, and a chart to this endeavor:
“The Roman Catholic church recognized the seven capital virtues as opposites to the Seven Capital Sins or the Seven Deadly Sins. According to Dante's The Divine Comedy the sins and their respective virtues have an ordering based upon their importance.”
SINS / VIRTUES
Pride (vanity) vs. Humility (modesty)
Envy (jealousy) vs. Kindness (admiration)
Wrath (anger) vs. Forgiveness (composure)
Sloth (laziness, idleness) vs. Diligence (zeal, integrity, Labor)
Greed (avarice) vs. Charity (giving)
Gluttony (over-indulgence) vs. Temperance (self-restraint)
Lust (excessive appetites) vs. Chastity (purity)
There are the lists. I will leave you to do the math. Contemplate the lists above and decide whether or not sins such as pride, greed and self-righteous wrath are considered to be virtues according to conservative socio-political doctrine. Is it not also ironic, for instance, that religious conservatives tend to condemn Darwinism within the biological sphere from which it is derived, but espouse a radical Social Darwinism in the form of a meritocracy that opposes such liberal ideas as Affirmative Action?
The New York Times article cited above contains this sentiment of a benefactor of the University of South Carolina, after whom their school of business has been named: “Rand’s idea of ‘the virtue of selfishness,’ Ms. Moore said, “is a harsh phrase for the Buddhist idea that you have to take care of yourself.” I would say that Buddhist idea in question has more to do with begging bowls than with hedge funds, annuities, and stock portfolios. But this quote provides, perhaps, a glimpse into the kind of manipulation of the tendency to cognitive dissonance that I detect in conservatism.