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Ayn Rand and the Noble Lie

Some people call a lie told for a great and good purpose a “noble lie.” Our government engages in a noble lie, according to these people, when it lies to us for our own good. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the lie really is for our own good.

What did Ayn Rand think of such a “noble lie?” I believe we can confidently say that “noble lie” is an oxymoron that never graced her lexicon. She was against even “white lies” in personal affairs, surely she was against big lies as government policy. The advocate of objective reality and honest trade among men would have despised a government which lied to the public “for its own good.”

She publicly expressed some of her thoughts on government deceit. Consider her testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, October 20, 1947 (the transcript is reprinted in The Journals of Ayn Rand). During World War II the government worked closely with Hollywood to ensure that it promoted the war effort. One example of such collaboration resulted in the production of Song of Russia, released by MGM in 1943. The purpose of this movie was to make Americans feel comfortable having the Soviet Union as an ally. As Louis B. Mayer put it in his own testimony to HUAC: “Mention has been made of the picture Song of Russia, as being friendly to Russia at the time it was made. Of course it was. It was made to be friendly. ... It seemed a good medium of entertainment and at the same time offered an opportunity for a pat on the back for our then ally, Russia. ... We mentioned this to the Government coordinators and they agreed with us that it would be a good idea to make the picture.”

After her swearing in and an introductory examination by the chairman of HUAC, Ayn Rand is examined by the chief investigator. She begins by giving her definition of Communist propaganda: “... Communist propaganda is anything which gives a good impression of communism as a way of life. Anything that sells people the idea that life in Russia is good and that people are free and happy would be Communist propaganda.” She goes on to describe the movie Song of Russia at some length, and shows that it portrays life in Communist Russia as free, prosperous, even idyllic. Then near the end (bracketed clarification mine):

Rand :  ... Now, here is what I cannot understand at all: if the excuse that has been given here [to this committee] is that we had to produce the picture in wartime, just how can it help the war effort? If it is to deceive the American people, if it were to present to the American people a better picture of Russia than it really is, then that sort of an attitude is nothing but the theory of the Nazi elite – that a choice group of intellectual or other leaders will tell the people lies for their own good. That I don't think is the American way of giving people information. We do not have to deceive the people at any time, in war or peace. ...
Then she is examined by Rep. John S. Wood, who focuses his inquiry on the U.S.-Soviet alliance during the war. He defends the movie’s deceit because it promoted Russia as a worthy ally, an ally – he claims – we needed at the time. After badgering her in this vein Ayn Rand lets him have it:
Rand :  I don’t believe the American people should ever be told any lies, publicly or privately [that is, by the government or by the movies]. I don’t believe that lies are practical. I think the international situation now rather supports me. I don’t think it was necessary to deceive the American people about the nature of Russia. I could add this: ... perhaps there are reasons why it was all right to be an ally of Russia, then why weren’t the American people told the real reasons and told that Russia is a dictatorship but there are reasons why we should cooperate with them to destroy Hitler and other dictators? All right, there may be some argument to that. Let us hear it. But of what help can it be to the war effort to tell people that we should associate with Russia and that she is not a dictatorship?

Wood :  Let me see if I understand your position. I understand, from what you say, that because they were a dictatorship we shouldn’t have accepted their help in undertaking to win a war against another dictatorship.

Rand :  That is not what I said. I was not in a position to make that decision. If I were, I would tell you what I would do. That is not what we are discussing. We are discussing the fact that our country was an ally of Russia, and the question is: what should we tell the American people about it – the truth or a lie? If we had good reason [to ally with Russia], if that is what you believe, all right, then why not tell the truth? Say it is a dictatorship, but we want to be associated with it. Say it is worthwhile being associated with the devil, as Churchill said, in order to defeat another evil which is Hitler. There might be some good argument made for that. But why pretend that Russia was not what it was?

Obviously Ayn Rand is bending over backwards to avoid digressing into the question of the propriety of an alliance with Stalin – which, we might add in passing, she was against – and return to her point: the public must be told the truth or nothing.

Consider the following snippet again, and note that although “it” refers to something specific, clearly she is speaking in general:

“… what should we tell the American people about it – the truth or a lie? If we had good reason, if that is what you believe, all right, then why not tell the truth?”
These are rhetorical questions. She is repeating what is obvious to her:
“I don’t believe the American people should ever be told any lies, publicly [by the government] or privately [by the media].

Ayn Rand would have made a very poor Neoconservative.

The Neoconservatives manipulate us with lies. They lie to us to get us to support what we would never support if we knew the truth. This is abundantly clear by now. What is interesting intellectually is that many of the Neocons are students of a political philosopher, one Leo Strauss, who explicitly endorsed such deceit.

I have read very little of Leo Strauss directly. When trying to read his books, the turgid academic prose quickly becomes stultifying. Here and there you see admiring references to Hegel and Heidegger, not a good sign. For more on Strauss let’s rely on reputable reviewers.

Here is a pithy summary of the situation from a Libertarian editorialist: “The whole neoconservative deal started with Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago teaching young saps that they were philosopher-kings who had to take action that the hoi polloi wouldn’t understand.”

The book Leo Strauss and the American Right by Shadia Drury was published by St. Martin’s Press back in 1999. Ms. Drury said in a recent interview, “I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power.” We will quote from her book in a moment, but we observe here that the effect of her book is blunted by her own old-fashioned leftist leaning. Sometimes she takes the Neocons at their word, such as their advocating the original-intent construction of the Constitution, and denounces them for their sincerity instead of for their hypocrisy.

More recent reviews of Strauss are Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire by Anne Norton, published in 2004, and Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy by Grant Havers, published in 2013.

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was born and grew up in Germany, spending half his life there. As a Jew he fled the Third Reich very late in its development, leaving in 1938. He came to the United States and eventually taught at the University of Chicago. He is most famous for his study of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, calling him evil and admirable by turns. Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Defense Secretary and a major architect of President Bush’s foreign policy, was a Ph.D. student of his at the University of Chicago, as was Abram Shulsky, eventual director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans. Strauss is popular among many other Neocons: editor William Kristol; commentator John Podhoretz; Michael Ledeen of Iran-Contra infamy; Stephen Cambone, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (recently resigned); Richard Perle, director of the Project for the New American Century; and many others holding important positions in the White House and Defense Department.

A teacher has his teachers. Strauss was a student of the philosopher Martin Heidegger and of the legal scholar Carl Schmitt, both National Socialist (i.e. Nazi) Party members. Heidegger taught that, as Richard Rorty approvingly puts it, “the quest for truth and knowledge is no more, and no less, than the quest for intersubjective agreement.” It was Schmitt who invented the legal sophistries the Nazis used to entrench themselves following the Reichstag fire. Strauss also studied Vladimir Jabotinsky, an early Zionist.

Here are the main points of Strauss’s philosophy. Except for one quote of Strauss, as noted, all quotes are of Ms. Drury describing Strauss’s ideas.

  • There are the rulers and the ruled; “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”

  • This elite must perpetually deceive those they rule.

  • Religion “is the glue that holds society together.” Any religion will do. “Secular society … is the worst possible thing,” because it leads to individualism. “You want a crowd that you can manipulate like putty.”

  • “... a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat; and following Machiavelli, ... if no external threat exists, then one has to be manufactured.”

  • “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed ... Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.” (Leo Strauss)
  • To sum up: Strauss advocated a benevolent aristocracy that keeps its citizens in line using religion, deceit, and perpetual war.

    Though Ayn Rand never directly addressed Strauss, an obscure figure until his students obtained the president’s ear, surely she would have had as low an opinion of him as the low opinion she frequently expressed for his students at William F. Buckley’s National Review.

    Leonard Peikoff wrote an entire book, which Ayn Rand approved of and doubtless helped with, exposing the corrupting effect of German philosophy – Kant, Hegel, Heidegger – on both Germany and the United States. There is no question Strauss descends from the same group.

    In The Objectivist of September 1970 Ayn Rand published the article “Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of the New Left” by George Walsh. This article exposes Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) as the fascist theoretician he was. Marcuse and Strauss were contemporaries, and their histories and outlook are similar. Marcuse too was born and raised in Germany, and as a Jew he fled to the U.S. in 1934. A bit more active than Strauss, in the early 1940s he worked for the OSS, the corrupt forerunner of the corrupt CIA. He too wrote many books, claiming to be fighting fascism, even as he was virulently anti-reason and anti-individual.

    Ayn Rand had noted long ago the streak of fascism common to both liberals and conservatives, their protests to the contrary notwithstanding. Leo Strauss is the neoconservatives’ Herbert Marcuse. Were Ayn Rand alive today she might write an essay entitled: “Leo Strauss, Philosopher of the New Right.” Just as the New Left was the nakedly fascist strain of the Left, so the New Right – the Neocons – is the nakedly fascist strain of the Right. In some cases we even find the very same men in both groups! Many of the Neocons of today are the New Leftists of yesteryear.

    New Left versus New Right is a phony opposition, like a TV wrestling match. At base they are the same, and utterly opposed to Ayn Rand’s ideas.

    Given all this, the May 5, 2005 issue of TIA Daily came as a shock to even hardened readers of the mendacity coming from associates of ARI. That day TIA Daily carried the item “Wall Street Journal Roots For, Against Religious Right” by Robert Tracinski. Mr. Tracinski begins: “The editorial page of today’s Wall Street Journal is turned over to a debate over the merits of the religious right.” He goes on to dismiss the editorial, by James Taranto, and then observes (note that “terrific” here means “extraordinarily good”):

    “On the other side, former leftist Christopher Hitchens makes a terrific argument, presented in a more disciplined and hence more eloquent style than normal. His reference to Ayn Rand in this article is amusing, since I first became aware of Hitchens in the late 1980s—before his September 11 conversion to the right—when he defended socialism in a debate against Objectivists Harry Binswanger and John Ridpath.”
    Evidently what Mr. Tracinski finds amusing is Christopher Hitchens’ switch from opposing Ayn Rand to promoting her. We will quote Hitchens’ “amusing” reference to Ayn Rand in a moment and consider how he promotes her. For now keep in mind that the above is all – repeat all – Mr. Tracinski has to say about it.

    We note in passing that the suddenness of Hitchens’s “conversion” from (New) Left to (New) Right only shows that he remains a Leftist at heart. For example, recently Hitchens reviewed (in The Atlantic, June 2004) an admiring biography of Leon Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronstein), founder and leader of the Russian Red Army. Hitchens describes the biography as “sonorous and majestic” and says that Trotsky was the embodiment of “defiance and dissent” – evidently for being a victim of Stalin’s purge trials, which (we observe) consisted of one murdering-thug killing other murdering-thugs. Says Hitchens: “Even today a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man.” Trotsky, that is.

    Penumbra? You know, a halo. Other Neoconservatives feel this affection for Trotsky, some referring to him as “L.D.” and per above “the Old Man.”

    Now here is the beginning of what Mr. Tracinski so admires, which he quotes from Hitchens’s “Why I’m Rooting Against the Religious Right” Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2005:

    “At least two important conservative thinkers, Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, were unbelievers or nonbelievers and in any case contemptuous of Christianity. I have my own differences with both of these savants, but is the Republican Party really prepared to disown such modern intellectuals as it can claim, in favor of a shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity?”

    To call Ayn Rand a conservative thinker of the Republican Party is jarringly off key – she urged us to vote against Reagan for example, the same Reagan who brought the Neocons to Washington. To say that Ayn Rand was contemptuous of Christianity is to use the wrong word. And to place Ayn Rand in the same camp as Leo Strauss is bizarre. Hitchens evidently believes that Ayn Rand advocated meritocracy, revealing his total lack of understanding of her thought. And only a Tracinski could be so tasteless as to call this coupling of opposing intellectuals – one an advocate of capitalism and truth, the other of aristocracy and noble lies – “amusing.”

    Despite denouncing neoconservatism in the abstract ARI writers promote many individual neoconservatives again and again.  See  Birds of a Feather  on this website.