ROBBING AYN RAND TO PAY EMMA GOLDMAN: Participatory Culture Requires Engagement, Not Snarky Ideological Class Warfare

In southwestern Ohio, in libraries and bookstores and book clubs, one author has come to epitomize the cultural shift in conservative communities away from both the plutocratic corporate welfare state and the definition of "U.S. Neocon" that’s been in use for the last quarter of a century.

Ayn Rand.

Hard to believe, but, well, the bitch really is back.

Rand’s books, like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are flying off shelves. Reason Magazine, the mostly anarcho-capitalist but strictly civil libertarian magazine, recently dedicated a large amount of coverage to a phenomenon that makes a lot of activists cringe. Rand’s on bestseller lists, in high school boys’ bedrooms stashed like porn, passed around in megachurch youth groups and even – GASP! -  university social sororities and fraternities.

At the Tea Parties in the Buckeye State, one finds numerous lifelong Republicans and members of the Religious Right who’ve suddenly realized what a lot of people already figured out, including those Socialists and Marxists they defame constantly with Barack Obama’s Big Money & Power grassroots – The Republicans are just as big, bad, and power-mad as the Democrats, that neither side really wants to help anyone who won’t bribe them to care, and US voters, like firebombed Iraqi schoolchildren or Afghan villages, are acceptable casualties.

But, from some elements of the traditional Leftist traditions in the US,  this astounding change in the cultural realpolitik has been met with either ho-hum bourgeois elitism or the same snarky public ridicule tactics used by liberals, their boardroom ownership, and their talking head lapdogs.

It’s important to note that it’s downright hypocritical and petty for anybody who believes in rebuilding society into participatory, less-authoritarian fascist state not to engage these groups of people on a meaningful level in a non-preachy, proactive manner.

Why not try to find some way to build consensus with and to reach compromise with a part of society that has been just as betrayed and used by the system as anybody else? Without the coercion, the use of force, the top-down statist propaganda and Big Media histrionics?

It ain’t participatory if ya don’t believe in something beyond full-contact ideological warfare.

* * * *

One cannot believe in direct action as merely a blunt object for smashing reckless globalization or wrecking an exploitive form of state/corporate capitalism, or as mere street theatre in the form of a protest to raise awareness. Direct action sometimes means being willing to go grab a pint in a working-class shitkicker of a bar with the Good Ol’ Boys and to have a conversation, maybe have a mild debate over a game of pool. 

As Whitman surmised, one must sing the body electric.

Shortly after the 2008 election, I for some reason found myself in a rural pub here in Ohio, sitting at a bar one afternoon, grabbing a quick lunch alone next to a truck driver, a retired contractor, and a small business owner. A dust-covered TV above the liquor cabinet played CNN, some talking head of an analyst offering commentary about the last round of money laundering that was that abortion of a "stimulus" plan.

Sure enough, one of the guys – this big, bearded beast of a human being – had a copy of one of Rand’s books out on the bar. And sure enough, the moment Obama’s image flashed on the television screen, he couldn’t help but voice his opinions.

For the record, I’ve never been able to stomach the rich and snotty egoism of the Randian movement and Objectivism in general, no more than I’ve ever been able to stomach the trustafarian brand of High Brow Academic Activism espoused by people who organize protests against injustice, all while living off Daddy CEO’s earnings from sweatshops and labor abuse.

I think that’s a common sentiment for folks who’ve read Emma Goldman’s work, or Samuel Konkin’s, or even the 19th century US individualist anarchist writers Josiah Warren and Lysander Spooner, from the writings of the Big Russians like Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Bakunin.

Ayn Rand just seems, well, kinda silly and petty, a mean-spirited old bitch with self-esteem issues married to capitalistic greed, when measured against the same anarchist principles she conscripted, twisted, and repackaged as a consumer good.

But to each their own. C’est la motherfucking vie. All the world is both a stage and a marketplace, especially in terms of ideas and opinions.

* * * *

In that lonely bar, something fascinating happened, magical, downright occult.

Prompted by the closed captioning and over a juke box playing Johnny cash and Tom Waits randomly, what began with a simple voicing of opinion became an open, honest, and intellectually brutal conversation over everything from the nature of capitalism (which is not, in fact, a synonym in modern society for free and open markets), organic and fair-kill food (can’t get more sustainable or healthy than venison that you can eat and use to trade with your neighbors), mutual aid, and even – GASP – an agreement on the necessity of reinventing health care to make it universal over insurance reform.

Even the server jumped in at times, either furious we were beating up on her boy Obama as much as Bush, Carter, Nixon and LBJ or defending feminist points of view from a true working class perspective.

And while at times the conversation  was anything but civil, soapboxes were used as ideas and not ideological murder weapons, and I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to pronounce "Noam Chomsky" and "manufactured consent" while drinking with an ideological conservative after four pints as well as I did that afternoon.

At one point, I scribbled a recommended reading list out on a cocktail napkin – Sam Dolgoff, who wrote under the name Sam Weiner and worked as both an IWW organizer and a New York paint contractor – fascinated the retired, lifelong conservative, homebuilder.

He always thought that anarchism just meant chaos, college-educated bums, and pipe bombs – that’s media conditioning for ya. Never mind that the modern corporate-owned version of conservative libertarianism stole the whole "small government" thing from the old-school anarchists who, in the US tradition, are traditionally more workin’ man friendly than a Toby Kieth song, while really meaning "minimal government services for the people; jackpot for bankers and transnational exploiters."

Go figure.

Some of those Randian experimenters and lost Tea Baggers were left just as much in the dark about different ways of human self-governance and community as your average 18-year-old Obamaniac who drank the mass-marketed viral Kool-Aid.

Why not reach out and simply have a conversation? Skip the rhetoric, the dogma, and even the intellectual pulpit authoritarianism that, yes, even the most anti-authoritarian members of the Left are sometimes guilty of practicing…

Huh. Imagine that?

A new segment of the population who’re starting to take the blinders off, figuring out "neoconservative" ain’t nothing but a rich man’s status quo, and that nobody gives a shit in Washington about your everyday Joe and Jane?

Beats the hell out of the old "With Us or Against Us" crap.

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