PRODOS SPEAKS WITH
SCOTT McCONNELL ABOUT
AYN RAND'S INFLUENCE AND
THE WORK OF THE
AYN RAND INSTITUTE
SCOTT McCONNELL IS DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATION AT THE AYN RAND INSTITUTE
Prodos: (INTRO) The Ayn Rand Institute is at the forefront of the battle of ideas. Its existence and its activities I believe are going to make the 21st Century a very interesting time in human history. What do you think Scott McConnell?
Scott McConnell: It's ideas that move history, It's ideas that move a culture, It's ideas that motivate people.
Prodos: And we're not just talking about general day-to-day ideas. We're not talking about how do you drive a car or what kind of ice-cream do you like. We're talking about fundamental ideas like: How do you see yourself? How do you see your thinking? How do you see the world around you? What's it all about?
Scott McConnell: Who should run my life? What is the purpose of my life? Basic questions like that. But unfortunately, at the end of this century - probably the bloodiest century in history - the ideas that are dominating the culture are ideas like: That you must serve your fellow man, That you should follow your emotions, That there is no absolute truth. An especially scary idea in Australia, one that's very popular here: Egalitarianism. These are bad ideas that lead to low self-esteem, unhappiness and, unfortunately, growing in Australia and other countries, more political controls. So what the Institute does, based on Objectivist ideas - Ayn Rand's philosophy . . .
(I interrupt and invite Scott to say something about Ayn Rand's ideas)
Scott McConnell: . . . The ideas we're promoting - just to pick some of them are: The individual's own happiness is the purpose of his life; you should not serve the community, or the lame, the halt, the blind. You don't have to serve migrants, you don't have to serve any special interest group - whether it be a racial group or an economic group. You don't have to serve ANYBODY. You serve yourself! Now, saying that, I do have to add that that doesn't mean others should have to serve YOU. It's an objective principle that your life is your own, that you serve your own happiness. And every other person has that right. So you can't force or use fraud against people to suit your purposes.
Prodos: What a shame though that every time I say to someone: The important point about life is pursuing your own happiness, I've then also got to say - as you just did - "of course that doesn't mean I'm allowed to sacrifice others for my benefit - that selfishness is not of that type."
Scott McConnell: That's a good example of the intellectual and moral confusion of the times. A lot of people - especially good down-to-earth Australians have a gut feel that their life is important, that THEY are important. But they've also swallowed the opposite - the bad ideas that they must serve others. One of the key ideas that's been corrupted and destroyed is the word SELFISHNESS. As you know Miss Rand believed in the virtue of RATIONAL selfishness and because of the corruption of language and ethics you do have to explain to people that there are TWO FORMS of selfishness. On the one hand you've got the Nietzschian type - Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the last century who influenced people like Hitler and so forth - who believe "I'm a superman, I'm strong, people should serve me, I shall crush them under my boot and they shall obey". That's a kind of criminal personality or the kind of mentality that the Fascists or the Communists would have - and that's obviously evil and very wrong.
But RATIONAL SELFISHNESS - is the concept that Objectivists espouse and that is: My life is important, it's MY life, I want to be happy, I'm not going to hurt others, others have no right to hurt or control me. I've got this purpose in my life and I'm going to get a career and hopefully a love life. These things are going to serve my happiness.
Prodos: What a glorious set of ideas! It really is the glory of man! Ayn Rand's philosophy is a liberation! It sets a whole new STANDARD for human happiness!
Scott McConnell: It gives you a sanction to go for that happiness. A lot of people, especially from religious backgrounds feel guilty about being selfish, guilty about being happy. Unfortunately this plays into the political arena. Living in the United States I saw the so-called "Republican Revolution" in 1994 (Prodos groans). And basically what I saw was that the Republicans were undercut very strongly because they did not have an answer to the word SELFISH - (and also EXTREMIST) - but let's focus on the word selfishness. For instance, if they tried to cut welfare or put some controls on it - they couldn't do it. They didn't have a distinct program that's opposite to the Democrats. When Clinton would say to them things like: "You're nasty and selfish and you're out to get the lame, the halt and the aged" the Republicans didn't have a moral leg to stand on because they don't believe in selfishness, which is the only answer to the welfare state. Therefore they collapsed. And what did they have to fall back on? They put their hands in the bottom of the barrel and came up with a woman by the name of Monica Lewinsky. Now that's not to say that President Clinton isn't a liar and a dishonest person. But the focus should have been on his terrible policies; policies that control people's lives and undermine American interests in North Korea, in Iraq, for example.
Prodos: Listeners may be curious and may be impressed at how quickly you've lost your American accent Scott. (all laugh) You've only been in Australia three weeks now I believe. That's how powerful Australian culture in fact is.
Scott McConnell: It's the meat pies and Vegemite.
Prodos: Ah, it affects the vocal chords. Actually, dear listeners, Scott is actually, originally an Australian.
Scott McConnell: That's correct. And still an Australian!
Prodos: Ah, you're still, technically, an Australian are you?
Scott McConnell: Yes, I still have an Australian passport.
Prodos: OK. Are you intending to become an American citizen?
Scott McConnell: No. I hope to get a Green Card but I don't see any need to get American citizenship. All that gets you is basically the right to vote and there's not much of an option in that anyway. And with an Australian passport and an American Green Card I have the option of going between two countries quite easily. That's very enjoyable.
Prodos: Australia - unlike the United States - has not got an explicit phrase in its Constitution which defends life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. Yet on the other hand, I've always felt that Australia and Ayn Rand work well together. In fact over the time I've been on radio (nearly three years) I've been surprised and delighted at the number of excellent people who have openly stated support for Ayn Rand on my program.
I'll just give you a couple of examples. Frank Penhalluriack - who I did a lot of work with - the "Rebel Sunday Trader" who for over twenty years was persecuted by the Victorian State Government here in Australia. He was defending his right to keep his shop open on Sundays and any hours that he wanted to. Through his perseverance and fighting he ended up changing the way that trading is now done throughout Australia.
Scott McConnell: That's very good! I hadn't heard of that.
Prodos: Yes, well Frank Penhalluriack openly said on my show that he has read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and these influenced him and helped him defend himself. He actually went to jail and was also fined half a million dollars - just for keeping his hardware store open! Is that incredible or what?
Scott McConnell: That's a very brave stand. That's a stand on principle.
Prodos: And he IS a man of principles. Then there's Dr John Mackellar who I've had on my show a couple of times (talking about dismantling Medicare) and helped him campaign during the recent Federal election where he was fighting against Senator Michael Woolridge - the Federal Health Minister (John fared very badly by the way). Well he said to me on my show - openly and without my prompting - although he may have known I was an Ayn Rand advocate and fan - he said "No-one really interested in the ideas of liberty and rational thinking can ignore the great American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand".
Scott McConnell: That's very good.
Prodos: And then there's Frank Shostack who's originally Russian and who now works in Sydney as the Chief Economist at Ord Minnett, the investment house, he is openly and enthusiastically an Ayn Rand supporter. So what I'm saying is that Australia and Ayn Rand are compatible but we don't have the history that the United States has. Is there any HOPE for Australia - and Objectivism in Australia Scott?
Scott McConnell: Well there's always hope (Prodos laughs). Because people have free will and as long as there's no censorship. In Australia a free market in ideas is still available. You can still go down and pick up a foreign newspaper or get onto the World Wide Web. You can even read pornography or radical ideas - from Communism to Ayn Rand's. And thanks very much for the Web - where it's going to be practically impossible, I think, in the future for governments to control ideas.
Prodos: They'll try though.
Scott McConnell: They probably will. And, as you say, Australia's history is, unfortunately, not as steeped in pro-freedom ideas as America. For example, Australia's Constitution wasn't written until 1901. That's over 110 years after the American one - 110 years after The Enlightenment and the ideas of Locke and all those very explicit principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were so influential. We don't have that pro-freedom spirit and ideas as embedded as deeply into - for want of a better word - 'the national psyche' as the Americans do.
Prodos: Does that mean that Australia, in a sense, will be a 'me-too' country? Are we waiting for the United States? Is the USA going to set the standard? Or do you think that Australia can develop some leadership in ideas?
Scott McConnell: Well Australia HAS been a leader in some things in history in the sense of inventions and economic development, and in sports and things like that. But, having said that, the leadership must come from America. I can notice here - and Australia is a great place and I don't want to put it down - but I have noticed this trip just from reading the newspapers and listening to the news that Australia doesn't have the BROAD RANGE of ideas that you find being expressed in America, where you'll find everything from the most Leftist, writings to the Ayn Rand Institute editorials getting published, in the last year, in over 115 newspapers across the United States.
Scott McConnell: It IS fantastic. And this coming year (1999) I'm sure we will get published many more times than that.
Prodos: Well the Ayn Rand Institute and Objectivism, Ayn Rand's Philosophy, has had some incredible successes through 1998. The most recent is the Ayn Rand postage stamp coming out in 1999 which we discussed on the show last week with the US Postal Service (read transcript).
Scott McConnell: The stamp wasn't a project of the Institute. But it was, I believe, recognition by the Postal Service of her importance.
Prodos: Of course there's the annual essay writing competition. And, Dear Listeners, if you have children in High School they can enter the Ayn Rand Institute's essay contests. Could you say a little about the
Scott McConnell: There's the Anthem essay contest based on Miss Rand's novel, Anthem, for year 9 and 10 students. And The Fountainhead essay contest for those in years 11 and 12.
Prodos: And every year thousands of US dollars are won for the best essays. You don't have to be American do you? Anyone in the world can apply.
Scott McConnell: That's correct. If I remember correctly, the total prize money for both contests is US$35,000. And there is now, I'll remind your listeners, a third essay contest and that's the Atlas Shrugged essay contest for University students.
Prodos: Ideas do matter and Objectivism is a set of very powerful ideas. One of the things that is remarkable is that since Ayn Rand died in 1982 - which is about when I first read her novel The Fountainhead - Objectivism has continued to advance in incredible leaps and bounds. And today there are some absolute giants of Philosophy walking this earth. I mean we've got: Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, Michael Berliner, Robert Tracinski, Betsy Speicher, Gary Hull, John Ridpath, Andrew Bernstein and the list just goes on.
And these individuals are busy coming up with revolutionary thinking in every area! Mathematics and physics, how to deal with terrorism, education, government regulation, monetary policies, you name it the Objectivists are revolutionising every field they come in contact with. Scott would you like to make a comment on that?
Scott McConnell: Well thank you for the compliments of The Institute. The Institute's been very successful. It's been going since 1985 and it started off focusing more on education projects, focusing on getting Objectivist ideas into universities and high schools with such projects as the essay contests. We also have a campus club project.
Prodos: Oh beaut! That's a great one.
Scott McConnell: Yes, students can get together and listen to audio tapes and watch video tapes of Objectivist speakers and lecturers or have live lectures on campus. About two years ago we had a ten part lecture series at Harvard University and the culmination of that was Harry Binswanger debating a leading liberal campus professor at Harvard, Randall Kennedy
Prodos: (laughing) I feel sorry for him already!
Scott McConnell: Yes, it was a rather interesting debate and Dr Binswanger, as your listeners probably know is a brilliant intellect . . .
Prodos: (interrupting) Yeah, we often cover some of his essays and writings on our Philosophically Speaking segment. Yeah, he's fabulous.
Scott McConnell: Yes. So there's things like that. But I do have to add that, successful as The Institute is, the battle has a long way to go. I mean The Institute gets Op-Eds published, it gets media coverage, it helps promote the books of Miss Rand and the Academy Award nominated documentary Ayn Rand - A Sense of Life, and there's been a whole host of successes there but it's still has many huge battles ahead. We are at the moment, we have to say, a small force. We have thousands of supporters and we're getting our ideas to the public but the culture is dominated by the ideas of our opponents. So it's a long-term battle - to influence people and help them get up to positions of influence such as becoming journalists or professors - especially in philosophy -
Prodos: Or set up a radio show (I say expecting to plug my own show but am humbled. . . )
Scott McConnell: The Leonard Peikoff Show (formally known as "Philosophy Who Needs It") which is increasingly successful and on the web and on the radio waves is a great way to spread good ideas - that's a fabulous opportunity for us.
Prodos: Scott, you say that there's a long way to go and certainly it's a battle. And as someone once said "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance" and this also true in the realm of philosophy in upholding rational values - the battle is ongoing and eternal. But in fact, isn't history made by minorities? The people who actually care? A good example of that was the Random House poll where people were asked to vote for what they thought were the greatest novels of the century and Atlas Shrugged came up number one.
Scott McConnell: And The Fountainhead was number two.
Prodos: Exactly! The Fountainhead was number two. Ayn Rand and Ayn Rand! And of course in the top ten we still had We The Living (link) and Anthem (link). What I'm saying is that the people who took the trouble to vote on this web poll - which we looked into a few weeks ago on the show (date) - they have determined and set a standard in culture.
Scott McConnell: And that's an interesting point. And I'd like to emphasise - because I have to say it's just one poll and it was probably not the most brilliantly scientifically controlled poll - but it was an interesting indication of what young people are doing. But let me give you three other sources of very interesting information that show there is a TREND - that's it's not just a fluke or one poll result that may be skewed. For example in 1991 The Library of Congress and the Book of The Month Club did a survey across America and found that, after The Bible, Atlas Shrugged was named by Americans as the book that had most influenced their lives. Another poll early this year, I think, at University of California, Berkeley, one of the most leftist and influential campuses in North America - undergraduates voted The Fountainhead as their favourite book. And another source is on the Web at Amazon.com, which bills itself as the biggest bookstore on earth - it's an internet book service - if you go the philosophy section there you'll find Miss Rand's books very high on the best sellers lists - even at the top. I believe Amazon has three million titles in its list. Miss Rand's books, I believe, are all in the top three thousand - which is incredible.
Prodos: It's incredible that a philosophical work could sell so much.
Scott McConnell: Yes, and the books still sell enormous amounts each year: at least three hundred thousand books each year. And of those I would especially like to push Atlas Shrugged. If your listeners are interested in Objectivism that's the best book to start with and to recommend and to give to others. Not to promote like "here's some ideas that will change your mind" - but tell them this is a CRACKING GOOD YARN that will excite you and it's got some interesting ideas too.
(Thank you's, farewells, END)
Recorded: Melbourne, 8am, Saturday 28th November 1998
Broadcast: 2nd December 1998 on the "Philosophically Speaking" segment of The PRODOS Radio Show on Melbourne's 97.4 FM