John Whittingdale’s Curious Notion of Culture

April 21, 2016 10:56 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The Minister of Culture, Media and Sport has chosen a controversial film as his favourite. This raises questions not only about his taste but his political vision. He has chosen Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. [This article was completed, by coincidence, the day before the recent controversy about Whittingdale emerged].

The Fountainhead is not a film I wish to see, despite the presence of Gary Cooper and the fact that it was allegedly inspired by the idealist vision of Frank Lloyd Wright. I do not wish to see it because it was written by Ayn Rand. My attempts to read Ayn Rand always have been abandoned with a sense of exhaustion. Almost immediately in her philosophic works at least, one feels oppressed by the dictatorial insistence of her tone. She does not know how to argue a case for she does not consider the possibility of alternative readings. There is neither subtlety nor humour.

An emotional monotony dulls the senses. That, surely, is the intention: we are meant to surrender assent without question.

The bizarre thing is that Rand’s work is dedicated, in theory, to the idea of freedom.

It is for her an absolute, always a dangerous sign. For her the freedom of the individual is absolutely, and without qualification, paramount. Society can authorize no demands on the individual. It is the moral imperative of humanity to reject society’s illicit bounds on the individual. Concern for others is contrary to the moral law of freedom. Our true concern is for ourselves.

The colophon of this freedom is $. The US dollar is the guarantor of liberty. But it is not the generous and tolerant liberty of Benjamin Franklin. It is the liberty to do as you damn well please because you are special and you are worth it.

Yes, she was mad. And, if taken seriously, she remains a danger. There are those who do take her seriously, especially in the USA. Objectivism, the name by which Rand sought to legitimise her thinking, is taught in some universities. That is not yet true here, as far as I know, but in the future who knows? John Whittingdale, Minister of Culture, Media and Sport – it is not clear into which category Ayn Rand fits – has announced that The Fountainhead is his favourite film.

Given that I have not seen it, I am at a disadvantage. On the other hand, I have not seen The Triumph of the Will either.

The technical qualities of King Vidor’s film may be creditable. Gary Cooper always portrays well the sympathetic hero, usually as the liberal idealist among fools and knaves. At first glance it looks a perfect Cooper role, and no doubt he thought so when he agreed to take the part. But, knowing what we know of Ayn Rand, the air of arrogance and contempt places The Fountainhead in an unacceptable category of discredited thinking.

The premise of Rand’s scenario is dubious: the visionary architect fights the small-minded officials, finally destroying his work rather than compromising his vision. He is the artist-outsider whom ordinary people cannot understand.

The demos is despicably petty, unworthy of the genius unrecognized in its midst. An impulse of vengeance on the world is chillingly evident.

Rand believed in the inherent superiority of the gifted, a superiority that transcends the humane ethic all civilized people share. The visionary architect is not so much Frank Lloyd Wright as Albert Speer with his undoubted abilities put at the disposal of an inhuman and destructive aberration of values.

Although the essence of ‘Objectivism’ is transparently peculiar and perverse, Rand was in her way clever. She was articulate in her obsessions. A certain kind of gullible conservative might be taken in by the quasi-propositional nature of her case. But there is no generous enthusiasm, no desire to persuade and no sense at all that one could debate with her.

Any notion that Rand’s creative work can be appreciated outside of her thinking is clearly impossible. The ideas are too much in the foreground. A true artist weaves personal ideas and emotions in complex patterns. Engels observed that the greater the work of art the more sequestered the political intentions. With Ayn Rand it is clear at once what her political intentions are.

That she can be taken seriously is truly disturbing. Once a marginal figure who barely registered on the consciousness of mainstream thinking, her presence now may be detected in places close to the centres of power. That a British minister of culture can cite her as a major influence is a sign of the times that cannot be ignored. The purpose of promoting The Fountainhead is not an innocent act. Admirers of Gary Cooper choose other films, worthier films like Mr Deeds Goes to Town or For Whom the Bell Tolls, films of life-enhancing values, of small deeds of heroism with great implications for the human spirit. To speak of Ayn Rand is to speak of a political ideal that runs counter to the ethics of altruism, charity, and selflessness that have been the saving grace of humankind throughout history. To make money the measure of all things and to place the self at the centre of moral choice is unacceptable.

Whatever policies this government may pursue, even those that may incidentally seem benign [should there be any] we know that at the heart there are motives inspired by a dangerous anti-culture of base instincts which violate all that a consensus of ethical values has cherished for millennia.

For a government to consider selfish materialism as legitimate demonstrates the moral bankruptcy by which we are governed. For decades oppositional arguments have been muted by an acquiescent quasi-liberalism in a political class and media culture. A critical attitude to superficial style masks an acceptance of property, rather than culture and values, as the essence of a free society.

Only now are there signs that the solipsist will may not triumph as a viable polity. But for Ayn Rand to fall out of print there will need to be a change of heart that says what it means and means what it says. The alternative is a final collapse into madness.

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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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