In a famous speech from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, arch-villain Ellsworth Toohey explains one way to seize power over an entire country:
"Don't set out to raze all shrines you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity and the shrines are razed . . . Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It's simple. Tell them to laugh at virtue. Don't let anything remain sacred in a man's soul and his soul won't be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you've killed the hero in man" (p. 637).
His strategy is working.
Today, even a quick glance at newspaper headlines reveals the ongoing dismantling of freedom. It is true that the old guard of totalitarianism is largely dead the Soviet Union is dissolved, the Berlin Wall is ten years fallen, and formerly communist countries are adopting limited market reforms. But statism is hardly beaten it is simply reappearing in new guises, to fit the latest fashions of the masses. Major powers embark on imperialistic adventures to establish a world police state, under cover of NATO's "mission" or the "peacekeeping" of the United Nations. Rabid gun-control advocates gleefully demand an unarmed population be ruled by an ever-larger armed state, while dazedly wondering why mass shooters are able to take so many lives, unopposed. The "war on drugs" leaves innocents slaughtered in their beds by police goons dressed in paramilitary gear and righteous adrenaline. Successful businesses face a new frenzy of antitrust and other legislative action in the United States, as politicians and cowardly competitors conspire in massive legal extortion. And if a new totalitarianism descends upon us and this is hardly out of the question it will almost certainly be on the platform of environmentalism, a wildly successful and wildly anti-human modern religion.
What is killing freedom? Is it economic stupidity? The power of pressure groups moving unimpeded against a disinterested, complacent population? A conspiracy among the politicians and the press to maintain their modern-day Camelots?
Certainly, these are important culprits. But they are mere foot-soldiers compared to the looming commander whose spirit is the source of the disintegration of liberty: Ellsworth Toohey.
What made Rand's most evil villain so villainous was not his statist politics, nor his power in popular opinion and the media. And unlike Atlas Shrugged's bumbling bureaucrats, Toohey is not a vacuum of stupidity on the contrary, he understands, down to the philosophical roots, just what he's doing and why. The essential evil of Ellsworth Toohey is his naked hatred of the good for being good.
Toohey was after power. And he knew that one cannot rule those of integrity, confidence, happiness, and pride. Toohey's whole aim was to destroy these qualities to obliterate the shining spirit which represents joyous self-fulfillment. He sought to undermine a man's self-esteem and joy for life by destroying reverence. As Rand wrote in an early sketch of the character, his arsenal was not material, but spiritual, and centered on a sneer:
"His chief weapon is mockery. A great, all-embracing nihilistic ridicule. Allow nothing to remain sacred in a man's soul. Earnestness towards any conception, the mere conception of earnestness itself, is the base of reverence. Allow nothing to be important to a man's spirit. Laugh it out of existence. Laughter, not as joy, but as destruction" (Journals of Ayn Rand).
Mark this, for this mockery permeates our culture, and it is the hallmark of an entire generation. It is everywhere: in the self-effacing ugliness of popular music, to the anti-heroics of popular films, to the snickering, insecure sarcasm of today's youth, for whom that which is "cool" is precisely that which is ironic, defacing, twisted, and violent. Success, achievement, and independence are consistently attacked. It is the expression, en masse, of a neurotic facing a meaningless existence, and lashing out at anything of passion, beauty, and meaning. It is a fundamental attack on the values of human life and it is destroying the world.
The bloodiest regimes have come to power when the people of a country are demoralized and desperate to cling to any figure promising to bring meaning to their lives. Because of this, economic depression, mass hunger, and general chaos have always been cultivated by power-hungry politicians. Tyrants cannot rule men whose spirits are unbroken. But in the prosperity of modern society, we do not face famine or depression. Instead, our spirit is being dismantled from below, just as Toohey would have it through chronic mockery and cultural nihilism.
If we are to regain our freedom, it is not the politicians or the pressure groups which must ultimately be destroyed, but the life-hating spirit of Ellsworth Toohey.
To do so is a tremendous challenge it means resisting not just an irrational political philosophy, but the considerable momentum of an entire culture. It means rejecting the worship of the meaningless, the enshrining of vulgarity, the foggy, jaded indifference and ironic snickers which are so trendy today. In their place, one must rediscover that spirit and passion which is central to a philosophy of living on earth by seeking and cherishing beauty, achievement, meaning, and joy.
Ellsworth Toohey's greatest enemy was reverence the precise opposite of his demoralizing, life-negating sneers. To revere a thing is to hold it in the full context of one's values, to see its immediate connection to one's highest value one's life and to grant it a soul-filling recognition and salute. It is a considerable task, for it presumes the achievement of self-esteem, confidence, and conscious values. But it is also the stuff of exuberant joy the ecstatic state of being fully alive.
As such, it is absolute poison to tyrants everywhere, who thrive on the extinguished spirits of entire nations. The survival of civilization requires not just a political revolution, but a spiritual renaissance. It is either the screeching of punk rock, or the splendor of an exultant symphony. It is Andy Warhol, or it is Thomas Jefferson. It is nihilistic sneering, or a passionate reverence for being alive. Only one leads to freedom, and it will take nothing less to defeat the would-be totalitarians once and for all.
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