Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ayn Rand And The KKK

How's that for a click-baity title?

I'm currently thoroughly enjoying this biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest (NBF).

NBF was perhaps the most successful Confederate general of the war. If I recall the quote correctly, General Sherman once said, "Even if it took the lives of 10,000 men and bankrupted the Union, that man needs to be caught and killed!" NBF fought with crazed ferocity and was personally credited with killing 30 Union troopers in hand-to-hand combat. NBF's cavalry was feared and rightly so.

That's interesting, but it's not the point. Prior to the war, NBF was a slave trader in Memphis. With the supply of new slaves from Africa cut off as of the early 1800s, slaves were extremely valuable, fetching over $1000 each which today would be on the order of $30,000. The book details his trading and treatment of the slaves and it's quite illuminating. For example, he very rarely separated mothers and children. This was not due to a kind heart, it was a strictly business decision. Young children separated from their mothers did poorly, lowering their price. The same went for mothers whose children had been sold away.

Slaves were seen as livestock. Just as you wouldn't mistreat a prized horse, you certainly didn't mistreat a slave if it could be avoided, slaves being worth many multiples of almost any horse. That's not to say that punishment for infractions wasn't severe, it's just that the slaves were one of the largest investments, if not the largest investment of any enterprise.

Therein lies the connection to Ayn Rand's philosophies. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a true Randian. He did things for money and family and not much else. Up until his last years, he was an unbeliever and there's no indication in the book that he possessed any moral framework outside of his self-interest and his love for his family.

From an Objectivist point of view, why was what NBF did wrong? He was working to maximize economic value, wasn't he? He acted out of cold, impersonal logic and followed no superstitions. That it led him to trade in slaves, defend the Confederacy and become the first Grand Wizard of the KKK after the war seems immaterial to any objections a Randian might raise.

Wouldn't it have made for a more interesting novel if, in Atlas Shrugged, some of the people of Galt's Gulch had owned slaves? Without God and objective morality from a source outside ourselves, why shouldn't they?

Nathan Bedford Forrest fighting to defend his right to make dollars at the expense of human lives. Today, he might have been a board member at Planned Parenthood.


WC Varones said...

I'm not an Ayn Rand scholar, but libertarians in general believe in the "non-aggression principle."

This passage from Rand seems to indicate she agrees:


K T Cat said...

WC, I would think that could be swept away pretty easily if the money was good enough. Again, why not? Better still, if you, like Planned Parenthood, deny the humanity of a certain group, then Rand's principle, which you linked, does not apply.

As a soft libertarian, I recognize the power of self-interest. It's just that Forrest provides an excellent example of where that leads in the absence of other, dominant principles.

Anonymous said...

where that leads in the absence of other, dominant principles.

But didn't buckets of good Christians end up right in the same place? Your premise seems to be that somehow you end up with better morals if you have Christian theology to keep you on the straight, but in many cases Christians ended up using the Bible to justify slavery.

K T Cat said...

Anon, YES! That is exactly right! That was my point in my first post on Rod Dreher's Benedict Option. All kinds of "Christians" made their peace with slavery. Today, all kinds of "Christians" make their peace with abortion and/or illegitimacy despite the horrors and the sin.

However, without Christianity, I would argue you don't have a sufficiently large core of principled people to overcome these pathologies. Note that slavery was done in by evangelical Christians in England.

Ilíon said...

The reason -- the only reason -- that the pro-choicers of the time were trying to use the Bible to justify their choice is because it was on the Bible, and on the Bible alone, that the social attack on the "peculiar institution" was advanced.

"However, without Christianity, I would argue you don't have a sufficiently large core of principled people to overcome these pathologies. Note that slavery was done in by evangelical Christians in England."

My (direct line) great-grandfather was not a Christian until about the time the War Between the States broke out. He was said to be 1/2 Cherokee -- he is one of the few who escaped Andy Jackson's (*) round-up and forced-march into the wilderness. He *also* was a slave-owner ... until he became a Christian.

(*) yes, he was born that long ago.

Jedi Master Ivyan said...

I'm not following how Rand ties into this.

(I've read about 2/3 of Atlas Shrugged. I couldn't decide if it was a tediously repetitive political treatise or an overworked romance novel.)

tim eisele said...

"Note that slavery was done in by evangelical Christians in England"

Specifically, the Quakers (who I guess are in kind of a funny position, where some Quakers can be considered evangelical, but others are not, and still others are actually closer to secular humanists). Other groups allied with them later, but from everything I've read, it was the Quakers who were the originators and the real driving force for abolition in both the UK and the US.

As for the moral principle that opposes slavery, isn't it just a straightforward application of the "Golden Rule"? As in, pretty much nobody wants to be a slave themselves, and so they should not enslave others? That's a pretty basic moral principle, is it really restricted to christianity?

K T Cat said...

Ivyan, the message behind Atlas Shrugged, at least as much as I could make it out through Rand's ghastly prose, was that pursuit of the almighty dollar led to a good and civil society. Or something like that. Forrest, Planned Parenthood and cattle feed lots provide a counterexamples, at least for creatures considered non-human.

Tim, in a secular society the Golden Rule is backed up by ... what? Mutual agreement? Nathan Bedford Forrest and Hillary Clinton are what you get when society comes to a mutual agreement that a sector of the population isn't really human after all. NBF had no fear of becoming a slave because he was white. Hillary has no fear of abortion because she's already been born. There was/is no risk to either of them.

tim eisele said...

Yes, moral codes are backed up by mutual agreement. I would argue that the same is true regardless of whether it is a secular society, or a religious one. It's just that in the religious society the mutual agreement is "this is what God wants", while in the secular society the agreement is "this is the way that we want to treat each other". In practice, I don't see that one way gives significantly different results from the other.

And if you don't think that the Church arrives at its doctrines through mutual agreement (at least among the priesthood), then what were the Ecumenical Councils for?

Ilíon said...

^ Mr Eisele's assertion is not true, and he *knows* that it isn't true, just as *you* (both the owner of this blog and the general reader) know it isn't true. Yet, you (again, both the owner of this blog and the general reader) are far more likely to take offence that I have called him a liar than you are to take offence at the lie itself.

And *that* Gentle Reader is why our civilization is doomed.

tim eisele said...

Ilion: I expect you want me to be all offended about this, and maybe writhe around on the ground crying "A touch, a touch, I do confess it!" But I have to say I'm more just puzzled. What on earth are you accusing me of lying about?

Ilíon said...

^ Ah, and like clockwork, it's time for ye olde "More in Sorrow Than in Anger" shtick.