I’ve been carrying around an op-ed piece written by a physician entitled “Poverty is Not a Death Sentence.” It’s from Senator Rand Paul, the ophthalmologist Tea Party Republican Libertarian from Kentucky. His father, presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul, is also a physician, an obstetrician-gynecologist.
As I would glance at a sentence or two, wincing visibly, I realized this preoccupation of mine was similar to something I did at age nine or so. A clumsy child, I fell frequently and skinned my knees. As they healed, I’d relentlessly rub, scratch, lift, and pick at my scab. It hurt a bit but I just couldn’t stop.
This came to mind reading Rand Paul.
To some extent (but not much) we need to cut Rand Paul some slack. After all, he did endure an upper middle class household with Dr Ron Paul as his dad. Congressman Paul reminds me of too many professors I endured in medical school. During rounds, they’d badger you incessantly with fact after fact (some true, others likely not), all delivered with just enough irony to humiliate you for your ignorance. These professors were highly skilled at sabotaging a discussion by simply cutting you off with still more facts. Finally you nodded in dumb agreement just to get them to stop talking.
Knowing this, imagine little toddler Rand lulled to sleep by Dr Ron explaining laissez faire capitalism while other children were tucked safely in their gated communities, drifting off to Goodnight, Moon.
It’s important to know that both these doctors, our first ever father-son tag team of Congresspersons, are serious acolytes of the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand, author of the mega best-selling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). You can learn more about her philosophy, called Objectivism, by clicking that link or you can accept that everything you’ll need to know about this philosophy lies within the title of her non-fiction The Virtue of Selfishness.
Ayn Rand was an undeniably very smart but very difficult person who, like my professors or Dr. Ron, tolerated no difference of opinion. She would not at all have been offended by one recent liberal tag as “the godless goddess of greed.” There are a couple of good movies about her, one a documentary and the other starring Helen Mirren chewing up scenery and sounding just a little bit like Ron Paul himself.
Other famous Ayn Rand devotees are Alan Greenspan, many Republican congressmen, and, oddly enough, John Mackey, president of Whole Foods, who regards her as instrumental in the success of his company. Since Greenspan’s policies largely contributed to our current economic meltdown, it’s not impossible to consider the recession a result of several people in high places becoming dangerously inspired by a pair of cultish, overly melodramatic, and not particularly well-written novels.
Back to the scab
Here’s why Senator/Dr Rand’s op-ed so irritates me: Like a typical Ayn Rand Objectivist, if a problem like poverty exists he blames the victim. Even though he allegedly represents people from hardscrabble Kentucky, where hookworm is still a real diagnosis, according to Senator Rand these people aren’t so bad off because the average poor household has a car, two color TVs, a DVD player, and an Xbox. It’s the old welfare queen mentality of the Reagan years.
When it comes to health care, Senator Paul Rand’s comments are truly irritating. He quotes a study from a right-wing think tank allegedly showing that America’s poor were not hungry, were able to get medical care as necessary, and can afford all essential needs. In fact (here’s my favorite), health care for the poor is so good that “an American citizen can expect to live nearly twice as long as in some African countries.” This is true, I guess, surviving as we do to age 78, the US is 36th on the world’s life expectancy charts, far below all of Europe and Canada, but slamming the bejesus out of Swaziland, where a new baby born will be lucky if she reaches 32.
Senator Rand’s next point is very Ayn Rand: If America’s poor do have any health issues, it’s their own fault. A full third of the poor still smoke, and with all the cheap junk food they buy they’re obese and never exercise. If only they’d pull themselves up by their bootstraps (assuming they own bootstraps), burn a few calories, and watch less of one of their two TVs, they could avoid all that early-onset diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
To put it simply, Ayn Rand abhorred compassion, charity, and government support of anything. She had an immense skill for upending preconceived ideas about wealth and poverty and recasting the very rich as victims of society, forced as they are to pay high taxes and obey government regulations. When I was in college, her novels were immensely popular and required reading at the Young Conservatives Club.
I personally thought being an Ayn Rand devotee was a phase you went through when you were young, like being a Communist, Socialist, or Moonie. But like most things, I was wrong. She was dubbed the literary laureate of the Reagan years and virtually every political analyst agrees that she’s been the single greatest influence on Libertarians and Tea Party types.
So, I’ll keep picking at my scab by re-reading in the senator’s op-ed piece that the poor are all just fine, thank you, fat and sassy with their Xboxes and color TVs. I’ll try not to be disturbed by the report that 20% of Chicagoans go to bed hungry every night, or that 21% of Senator Paul’s home state is impoverished, with a heartbreaking 25% of children living in poverty.
With Republican presidential candidates tripping over themselves to align with the Tea Party, it might be a good idea (for your future health’s sake) to learn a little about Ayn Rand. Obamacare could actually be overturned in the next few years. If you look at the placards being held at Tea Party rallies protesting Obamacare, you’ll see “I am John Galt.”
Shouldn’t you know why?
David Edelberg, MD