Rape and the death of empathy

By Alan Bean

Just when it appeared that Paul Ryan’s infatuation with Ayn Rand might be garnering the attention it deserves, Todd Akin made his “legitimate rape” remark.  Suddenly the Republican National Committee was desperate to get Akin off the stage so he won’t ruin next week’s big show in Tampa.

But the Rand-Ryan connection may soon be staging a comeback.  People like Paul Ryan didn’t learn to love the free market by reading hard core economists like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises or even Milton Friedman; they read novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.  Stories are far more captivating than stats and pie charts.  In the relatively repressed 1950s, Ayn Rand was often a young person’s first brush with the pornographic imagination.  

For instance, here’s a famous scene from The Fountainhead in which a psychopathic role model named Howard Roark has his way with heroine Dominique Francon.

She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades . . . She fell back against the dressing table, she stood crouching, her hands clasping the edge behind her, her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror. He was laughing. There was the movement of laughter on his face, but no sound . . . Then he approached. He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.

That’s rape.  But in the end Dominique decides she likes a man who plays rough.  Roark gets a pass because, as Rand explained when asked about the violent encounter in her novel: “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.”

This kind of thinking lies at the heart of the philosophy that got Todd Akin in trouble.  Like many Americans, Todd suspects that most alleged rapes really consist of skanky females feeling the sting of regret the morning after.  Hence, they are not legitimate rapes.  Like Rand’s Dominique, these women send out engraved invitations and then cry foul.

According to reports, VP hopeful Ryan informed the unfortunate Mr. Akin that the RNC would be pulling its money from his senatorial race.  Ryan likely did the honors to underscore his rejection of Akins’ remarks. But how much distance is there between Ryan and Akin on the rape issue when neither man is willing to make abortion legal for raped women?

Akin insists his heart overflows with empathy for rape victims.  But how much empathy is at work when a man who cannot conceive or bear a child forces a rape victim to carry her baby to term regardless of the circumstances?

Empathy is no longer an American virtue.  Ayn Rand held the same attitude to rape that she applied to economic affairs.  If you get screwed (literally or metaphorically) its because that’s what you deserve.  By definition, winners win and losers lose.  Self-made men embrace Ayn Rand because of her contempt for the least and the last, not in spite of it.

In his book Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges views the troubling features of American life through the lens of Randian pornography:

Porn has always primarily involved the eroticization of unlimited male power, but today it also involves the expression of male power through the physical abuse, even torture of women.  Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society.  This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Porn reflects back the cruelty of a culture that tosses its mentally ill out on the street, warehouses more than 2 million people in prisons, denies health care to tens of millions of the poor, champions gun ownership over gun control, and trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism.  The violence, cruelty and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.

Hedges’ Jeremiad doesn’t just target conservatives.  Most liberals can’t see the obvious link between porn, rape and the death of empathy because they’re too busy telling us how “sex-positive” they are; how many sexual partners they enjoy on a regular basis; how delightfully kinky they have become in middle age, and how much fun they are having in the bedroom.  Porn is sex and sex is good, so what’s the problem?

Is it so surprising, Hedges asks, that the liberal mainstream has largely abandoned its historic role as the defender of the weak and vulnerable?  At the beginning of his porn chapter, Hedges quote feminist Andrea Dworkin with approval:

The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die.  The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.

In other words, if you can’t see porn for what it is, you aren’t likely too concerned about domestic violence or the atrocities unfolding on the US-Mexico border.

Empathy is all of a piece–either you’ve got it, or you don’t.

Nobody wants to admit as much, but Americans, Left and Right, are rapidly succumbing to the libertarian siren song, the idea nothing is anybody’s business, greed is good and all collective enterprise is doomed to failure.

Since the Ryan-Rand connection first surfaced, it has frequently been asserted that a Christian in good standing can agree with the author of The Fountainhead on the economy and the futility and unfairness of the welfare state without embracing her atheism and hatred for Jesus Christ.

But once again, empathy is all of a piece; either you’ve got it, or you don’t.

Ayn Rand didn’t just rail against communist collectivism; the idea of church folk banding together to assist the poor was equally despicable in her eyes.

Rand’s father lost the pharmacy he had breathed to life to Russian Bolsheviks who distributed the proceeds to the poor.  This experience filled the aspiring philosopher with deep loathing.  The idea of a hard working person giving anything of value to the undeserving rabble filled her with a holy rage.  The heroes of the Austrian School, Hayek and von Mises, had similar backstories.

This anti-collectivist revolt threw out the baby Jesus with the collectivist bath water.  American evangelicals who take Ayn Rand by one hand and Jesus of Nazareth with the other are “limping between two opinions” (to quote the prophet Elijah); they are living in the rubble of a house divided.

Well, don’t we all live in divided houses?  I certainly do.  But do we acknowledge the gnawing contradictions within us, or are we locked in a deep state of denial?

Empathy is all of a piece; either you’ve got it or you don’t.  And if you don’t, you’ve lost your religion.

5 thoughts on “Rape and the death of empathy

  1. One up for Chris Hedges. The philosopher Ayn Rand must have been a very sad person who thought she was great. People like her are no help to women’s causes unless they have suffered the truth of the ugliness of abuse of women (and children by extension).

  2. Most high school seniors know that if you are wiling to read one of Rand’s books and write an essay on it, you could win a scholarship… which is greatly encouraged. Most folks get introduced to her works at that age… long before they develop the ability to see the troublesome concepts that go against the values with which many of them were raised….or not, depending on the household.

  3. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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