Friday, April 22, 2011


In The Washington Post today, Michael Gerson has a surprisingly harsh column about Ayn Rand. On the subject of modern conservatives' favorite political philosopher, he writes:

Rand's novels are vehicles for a system of thought known as Objectivism.... Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible. "The Objectivist ethics, in essence," said Rand, "hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself."

If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others. Rand's achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne.

I thought of that after Zandar posted this not so much because of the story itself, but because of what I remembered about the man at the center of it. I'll explain what I mean below:

A bill popularly known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill advanced yesterday out of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee. The bill would prohibit teachers from discussing of any sexuality except heterosexuality in grades K-8, "even with students who may be gay or have gay family," according to Ben Byers of the Tennessee Equality Council (TEP)....

Sen. Stacey Campfield (R) is passionate about this legislation, which he previously sponsored unsuccessfully in the state House for six years.

Gerson thinks it's somehow wrong or unhealthy for right-wingers to embrace a philosophy that mimics the narcissism of adolescence. But if you examine the career of Stacey Campfield, you see that showoffy narcissism is the hallmark of his career. And it seems to be paying off for him -- in attention and in votes.

This is a guy who once introduced a bill requiring death certificates for all aborted fetuses. He later introduced a bill that would deny birth certificates for children of undocumented immigrants. (It probably won't surprise you when I tell you that he and three other Republican legislators were among the first to demand to see Barack Obama's birth certificate -- this was less than month after Obama's inauguration.)

Campfield has declared that Michael Vick's dogfighting activities weren't nearly as bad as abortion. He has filed legislation demanding that institutions of higher learning adhere to David Horowitz's so-called academic bill of rights. He's filed legislation that would require federal law enforcement agents to get permission from a local sheriff or attorney general before making an arrest.

And although he's white...

... he once tried to join Tennessee's Black Legislative Caucus; when he was denied membership, he compared the Caucus to the Ku Klux Klan, arguing that the Klan doesn't restrict membership by race. (In fact, the Caucus will grant "honorary membership" to "those persons whose belief and actions contribute to the purpose for which this caucus was formed"; given the fact that Campfield's voting record in Tennessee includes a vote against the Tennessee Rosa Parks Act, which would expunge the convictions of those whose crimes were challenges to segregation, I don't believe he qualifies.)

How does this work out for him? Just fine:

Campfield has usually won his elections by healthy margins.... He raises little money and spends little. He lives off the land. Casual observers wonder how he keeps his seat.

But it's a simple formula, really. He works hard. Shoe leather and elbow grease -- it's that simple.

Campfield straight up knocks on almost every door in his district. Even Democratic operatives who are repelled by him have remarked admiringly about how tirelessly he works.

A hell of a lot of Americans like showoffy narcissists. They like Joe Arpaio. They like Donald Trump. They used to like Jesse Helms. They responded to the tea party fist-shakers in 2009 and 2010. Preening and posturing and stamping your foot if you don't get 100% of what you want gets you respect from a lot of people in this country -- especially if you frequently find a way to get what you demand. (That's why it never works for Democrats like Alan Grayson. And that's why it invariably works for the Republicans.)

Randianism is one particular form of immaturity. But immaturity can really work for you in America. It's adaptive. So no wonder it thrives.

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