Through the power of the twitter, I was recently reminded of a blog post by Sam Harris of a few years ago. It’s titled How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying). Harris wrote it in response to the reaction to a previous post of his, How Rich is Too Rich?, in which he had had the audacity to muse about the efficacy and morality of raising taxes on the rich.
He was a bit stunned. Keep in mind that Harris has spoken and written about a myriad of controversial topics, including religion, torture, free will, and profiling at air ports. His writing has elicited so much controversy in fact, that he’s dedicated a page to it: Response to Controversy. And it’s the response to his ideas on taxation that left his swimming upstream though a tide of outage
Do you have too many readers of your books and articles? Want to reduce traffic on your blog? It turns out, there is a foolproof way to alienate many of your fans, quickly and at almost no cost.
It took me years to discover this publishing secret, but I’ll pass it along to you for free:
Simply write an article suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires
You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.
If there is another example that illustrates, as clearly and depressingly, the enormous success of free market fundamentalism in penetrating and lodging into the popular consciousness than this passage, then I haven’t come across it. How the propaganda has been so successful I wish I could say, but clearly the theology that’s been most successful in the US over the past 40 years isn’t the theology of Christ, or New Age mysticism, but the theology of the billionaire and invisible hand of the perfect market that has bestowed upon him his well deserved wealth.
Harris identifies one of the high priestesses behind this theology and take her, very satisfyingly, to task:
It is difficult to ignore the responsibility that Ayn Rand bears for all of this. I often get emails from people who insist that Rand was a genius—and one who has been unfairly neglected by writers like myself. I also get emails from people who have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” or otherwise saved by the “living Christ,” who have decided to pray for my soul. It is hard for me to say which of these sentiments I find less compelling.
As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly “objective” morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism—a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. And Rand’s attempt to make literature out of this awful philosophy produced some commensurately terrible writing. Even in high school, I found that my copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged simply would not open.
“Autism rebranded” is a great, succinct way of putting it. Cutting the core, Harris has a great diagnosis of the fundamental problem with these ideas:
And lurking at the bottom of this morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.
This should be obvious given a few moments of self-reflection, that is apparently isn’t speaks to the power of the propaganda. Whether this power comes from the ability of the propagandist or flaws within us, I don’t know. But, given the quality of Rand’s writing, I tend to lean towards the latter.