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The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis (2015)
Book Reviews

The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis (2015)

Fails to present the material on its own merits, with a willingness to divide and obfuscate when clarity is needed.

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Sorry, folks, but the evidence is in and the truth isn’t pretty: few people seem to know or care about how their economies work; less still how easily they can be broken. The populace is desperately in need of such an education, and if the allure of matching comics to theory can help bridge the divide then let’s have more educational comics on the subject (I’m looking at you, Josh Elder). But such material must require transparency and honesty in analysis, lest we lose ourselves down the rabbit hole of blame-shaming and tangents.

Darryl Cunningham’s The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Mortality, and the Financial Crisis is a book of such tangents, abusing its opportunity to provide insight into events that helped give rise to one of the most devastating economic events in history. By doing so it becomes less an educational reference than illustrated agitprop, using the rallying power of cartoons to justify prejudice and speculative rationalization to areas badly in need of nuance. In short, it’s propaganda.

It’s original title, Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy, is no less provocative, yet it clearly lacked the hyperbolic finger-poking to attract the fury of Rand’s most reliable followers. There’s few groups more susceptible to the exploitative advertising opportunities of controversy than defensive Objectivists.

For the record, not that it should matter, I’m not that big on Rand, either politically or ideologically. Sure, I’ve enjoyed her fiction for what it is, and I’ve enjoyed her non-fiction essays for what they are, but neither to the point of adopting what are narrowly defined belief systems that are, as Cunningham attempts to show, incompatible with the world as it is. There’s a time for selfishness as there’s time for altruism, but there’s a difference

I’m not going to waste time analyzing Cunningham’s thorough and rather informative analysis of the mechanisms of what may have led to the greatest economic collapse in modern times; such things are above my pay grade. But surrounding this analysis are severe and frequent lapses in Cunningham’s critical thinking and methodology in presenting the material that are obvious to even a neophyte like myself, and they need to be addressed.

Just as talk-radio is overrepresented by conservative voices drowning out all others, the world of comics – especially the subgenre of educational comics – appears almost exclusively focused on pushing what appears to be an increasingly narrow progressive agenda. There’s nothing wrong with this, but just being “comics” shouldn’t keep their content from analysis, especially when the lines between presenting real-life material as fact and exaggerated diatribes become blurred.

Rand, a controversial figure if there ever was one, is hardly the ideal candidate to transition well to the softer side of cartoon biography – and that’s if the cartoonist is actually fond of his subject. Cunningham is not fond of Rand, clearly, or her philosophy, or the massive uptick in popularity her works have enjoyed with certain groups recently.

This is a shame as I actually love Cunningham’s style: bold, clean lines encased in small boxes look great, pale colors evoking specific moods and settings with precision, all striking the perfect balance that makes flipping through these pages a joy. If only the actual content were presented as well.

What’s not so great are, unfortunately, is how he’s chosen to portray personalities he disagrees with, especially Rand, Alan Greenspan, Richard Nixon, and others, rendering them grotesquely, with scratchy jutting lines and (forgive me) hook noses that could be interpreted as anti-semitic. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, really, at Cunningham’s efforts to make readers actively dislike these people from every angle and perspective.

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Incidentally, I would guess the only reason for the introduction by Michael Goodwin, author of Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), was to add some legitimacy to some of Cunningham’s weightier economic analysis. Rather, it only reinforces the underlying impression that both are less interested in actually educating readers on the mechanics of how the economy works than assigning blame entirely on a value system they don’t share.

A recent interview with Cunningham revealed he’d worked as a nursing assistant on an acute psychiatric ward with the thought of becoming as a mental health nurse, eventually abandoning the effort when depression and anxiety were too much to bare. I can sympathize with him there, but a surface-level understanding of pop-psychology and associative underpinnings can lead to gross oversimplification and stereotyping, turning one’s own quest for knowledge into a virulent pathology in order to fit one’s own prejudices.

This is dangerous, not just for the sake of accuracy in the historical record but in shaping future analysis of events and the people involved. If Cunningham had settled on analyzing Ayn Rand, her torrid relationships with disciples, and the effects of her ideological theories on its followers that would be one thing. Sadly, he isn’t satisfied with just making ad hominem attacks on single individuals but pronounced generalizations on those groups those don’t share his worldview in a weak attempt to inoculate his theories from criticism.

For this he spends entire pages (yes, pages) showing what he feels are clear psychological and ideological schisms between conservatives and liberals, forgoing academia and instead relying on “research” and “large bodies of evidence” as source material, mostly online newspaper and magazine opinion columns, with the odd television interview or printed book. These studies and research would prove, he hopes, the inherent selfishness of conservative thinking, their lack of empathy, “blocking out facts”, welcoming of the police state, even indifference to AIDS sufferers.

This nonsense goes on for pages, leading to further diatribes and tangential efforts desperately trying to link Ayn Rand’s ideal society to the rise of conservative “selfishness”, a trait that seems to be absent from progressive thinkers. Blanket statements pass for truth, almost apologetically so: “What motivates conservatives is the need to protect the status quo, or, even better, turn the clock back to some nostalgic and often imaginary golden age.

To feign fairness, Cunningham’s most damning indictment of liberals here is their ability to see “the complexities and ambiguities of research, the chance to explore novel ideas and improve society.” Or damns conservatives with faint praise: “conservatives do care, but they find it hard to extend that care to those outside their own group.

He spends an unhealthy amount of time detailing Rand’s personal relationship failings and “moral degeneracy”, especially with Nathan Blumenthal, the young believer that would become her lover and co-partner in establishing Objectivism as a national movement. Cunningham, like others, misinterprets Rand’s acquiesce in her later years to accept Social Security benefits as ‘proof’ of her ideological hypocrisy, a ‘contradiction’ of her personal belief that accepting such things would make her a “moocher and taker” of the system.

But this narrative that selfishness leads to catastrophe is so unfocused, so unclear on the points it’s attempting to make, that it isn’t long before Cunningham loses focus by leading readers on a selective string of attacks on those groups and ideologies he holds responsible for the economic crisis: essentially the “political right”, specifically US conservatives, UK politicians, libertarians, and super-rich billionaires.

He minimizes or omits facts entirely which might point to contradictions in his assertions that the recent economic crisis is primarily the result of Randian Objectivists or conservative bullies. Facts like how the super-rich billionaires he harps about are mostly liberal democrats, the companies he points to at exploiting systems financial tax shelters (Apple, Google, etc) are run almost exclusively by liberal democrats, while Wall Street, the bane of his existence, is predominantly populated by social liberals who give overwhelmingly to the Democrat party. I’m generalizing, of course, but it doesn’t take much digging to see this rabbit hole doesn’t lead to the wonderland Cunningham would like it to.

He also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of US history, clearly visible in one shocking example of misappropriation where he compares the campaigns of universal suffrage, child labor laws, and environmental protections to the abolition of slavery and segregation, omitting entirely the failed secession effort by Southern states that escalated in conflict, instead reasoning without ‘citizen movements’ that “racial segregation would never have been abolished. Slavery would have continued.” It wasn’t a “political campaign” that ended slavery, it was a Civil War that lasted from 1861 to 1865, and to this day remains the country’s bloodiest.

The tangents continue with a paper thin defense of Obamacare, then an attack on the Tea Party (an obviously racist bunch), then Britain’s UKIP, then the Koch Brothers, etc. You get the idea. Cunningham jumps from target to target in such quick succession that you’ll wonder if he even bothered writing an actual script or just illustrated a progressive checklist of things worth hating.

What makes Darryl Cunningham’s The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis such a disappointment isn’t just its failure to present the material on its own merits, but a willingness to divide and obfuscate when clarity is needed. Had Cunningham stuck to presenting actual facts and rationalized from there, and not delved into such transparent and misguided demagoguery, he may have been more successful in at least providing economic newbies a solid foundation to build on.

By trying to psychoanalyze and therefore link recent economic collapses to an inbred psychosis either caused or manifested through Objectivism, Randian selfishness, or conservative thinking isn’t insightful but still destined to incite and promote stereotyping and premature hatred among those who don’t share his views. Brilliant men can be lauded in one field while holding abhorrent or otherwise contradictory beliefs in another (see Nobel Prize winner William Shockley and race for example). Likewise, Cunningham’s decision to stigmatize, name-call, and engage in petty ad hominem attacks brings into question his otherwise thoughtful and detailed breakdown of the worst economic crisis in modern history, ultimately disqualifying this work as either historical or educational material, placing it squarely in the realm of propaganda.