One of the more distasteful logical fallacies is the straw man, because its use implies a conscious intent to deceive. Honest, reasonable argument is noble on its face. But replying to an argument dishonestly makes a farce of what should have been fine. And it is shameful, and thus distasteful, to witness someone debasing themselves this way.
Ayn Rand’s critics are infamous, among her admirers, for their characteristic reliance on straw men. I myself have read perhaps hundreds of criticisms of her work, of which maybe two or three were straw-man free. The failing is pandemic. Since I am always looking for something to admire in my fellow man, it could be argued that I ought to read fewer of Ayn Rand’s critics.
But I don’t think I will stop reading them, because they fascinate me. The more persistent the gap between the phantasmagorical Rand they tilt at and the substance of what she wrote, the more fascinating the spectacle. What could be the cause of such “refutations,” I wonder? Why bother to rebut an imaginary argument? Why review a book that was never written?
It hasn’t sated my fascination that I already know, in outline, the answers to these questions. You, reader, likely know the answers as well. They are always the same. If we “seek the true by the light of the good,” we find nothing. If we believe we know what constitutes “the good” in some context, then we must think we already know, because the good is a species of the true, the truth in that context too. Thus we make ourselves unteachable. What if some might-be truth threatens our precious “good?” That might-be must not be. What if our own honesty threatens the good as we see it? Better be dishonest. What if being fair threatens the good as we see it? Better be unfair. If “progressive” values are good, Ayn Rand’s values, which threaten them, had better be degenerate. If progressives themselves are good people, Ayn Rand had better be a goon. So the answers are clear: Why rebut an imaginary argument? Because imaginary arguments have no power to disillusion; rather, they complement and sustain whatever illusion, or noble lie, one already cherishes. Why review a book that’s never been written? Because an unwritten book consists only of these safely imaginary arguments, or of characters, setting, plot, and theme equally anodyne.
It’s not enough to know, in the abstract, why Ayn Rand’s critics misread her. I want to know: what is it like to author such a misreading? What, exactly, is one telling oneself as it’s happening? I have a notion, and perhaps it’s wrong, but I want to find out for myself, that if someone were to recover from this particular form of self-delusion, he could return to the still-deluded, like Plato’s cave escapee, but he would know the secret words to whisper to them, the words that would finally set them free.