Sunday, April 24, 2005

Liberty—My Own Universalist Journey

When in 1962 I left the US Air Force at Andrews AFB to move out West to begin my stint at the Claremont Colleges, I took a side trip to visit New York City and seek an “audience with Ayn Rand.” First I called Nathaniel Branden and explained that, because of this journey, I may be gone for good from the East Coast and I didn’t wish to miss the chance to meet Miss Rand. He called her and secured a 30 minute meeting for me at the Empire State Building where she had her offices at the time. When I met her I was impressed with how generous and warm this woman was. We spoke easily and I still remember a particular exchange between us.

I had mentioned to Miss Rand that I, too, hail from a communist country. I said that this may account for why I was so responsive to her books, especially, of course, We The Living. She replied, without the slightest tone of chiding or disapproval but with a slight rebuke. “The ideas and ideals in my books are universal and do not speak only to those with certain experiences,” I recall her telling me.

I soon began to appreciate her point and I still think about it now when there are quite a few people who wish to locate Rand’s thinking within a particular tradition of, say, Russian philosophy. I believe that she would not have accepted this, although of course that doesn’t show these commentators are wrong. Still, it is important to begin one’s understanding of a thinker with how he or she understands herself. Rand, in particular, thought that she fit among those in the tradition of philosophy started with the ancient Greeks, especially Socrates and Aristotle, who believed that it is reason that’s to be the arbiter of truth and reason doesn’t function in parochial ways—it seeks universal understanding.

In retrospect I now appreciate that in my own case, as well, there had been a development from the particular to the universal when it comes to my understanding of human political, individual liberty. I was raised, as a young person, in a system of politics that was supposed to be aspiring to become communist. (There was no communism anywhere I history, of course, only systems whose rulers supposedly aspired to guide them toward communism.) Stalin was, in those days, a frequent visitor to Budapest where his puppet leader Rakosi ruled with an iron fist from 1948 on. As a student at the Bartok Bela Uti elementary school, along with thousands of others from around the city—youths and adults—I was required to attend the mass gatherings at the Hero’s Plaza where everyone had to listen to propaganda speeches and repeatedly shout in unison, “Our Dear Father, Stalin.” If we didn’t show and shout, we would be docked a grade.

Alongside these forced marches and the so called education we received—which was blatant indoctrination in most cases apart from the science and technology courses—I had also begun to become aware that my mother was a bit of a tyrant. I lived with her then and with her second family. My father, in turn, whom she divorced the year I was born, in 1939, had been an avid supporter of Hitler in his capacity as a radio commentator, and had left for the West as soon as the Russians conquered Budapest. Both my parents, despite considerably different styles of life and parenting, had been fanatic about athletics and I was promptly subjected to a regime of relentless indoctrination at home into such sports as fencing and rowing.

As those who know me a bit might imagine, this didn’t quite fit my own budding life plan, which tended to involve reading a lot of books—fiction and non-fiction. I had devoured, by age 9, nearly all the novels of the American western novelist Zane Grey, read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and about two dozen or more works by the creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner. As Mason once put it, 'You never can tell about these conservative Easterners, Paul. They all of them have a streak in them of wanting to be Wild West. I'll bet if someone would give that fellow a twin-holstered rapid-draw gun belt with a couple of guns in it, he'd stand up in front of a mirror, practise a fast draw and take fiendish delight in the process' (from The Case of the Amorous Aunt, 1963). This was certainly true about me, although I doubt Mason was referring to Easterners from as far East as Budapest. (Actually, Gardner had been an attorney in California with mostly Chinese clients in the early 20th century.)

Instead of warming up to sports, which at any rate I had been involved in entirely as a matter of my parent’s fantasy and imposition regarding my future, I would read these and many other books, mostly late at night, under my bed covers and with the aid of a flashlight. It was then that slowly but surely I began to be aware that I was not free to do what I thought suited me best, not just in the sense of being thwarted as most kids are when they try to indulge themselves but in the more serious sense of having one’s basic inclinations and aspirations forcibly, even brutally, suppressed.

The two sources of forcible suppression were political and familial but it took quite a while for me to realize that such suppression wasn’t only contrary to my life and hopes but amounted to the major threat from others directed at all people everywhere in history and around the globe. Those initial novels I had been eagerly devouring brought home to me this message forcefully but mostly only implicitly and I mainly identified with that message in a personal way, simply baffled why I wasn’t understood by my parents, why I was being shoved in directions that were so alien to what I wanted, albeit only vaguely.

One thing that is enlightening about all this, however, is that I never felt guilty for not wanting to go along with the plans for me concocted either by the Hungarian state or even my parents. Indeed, as to the former, when I was about 12 or 13 and was taking a class in what was euphemistically called “constitutional government,” I recall a leceture about the Marxian principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Listening to the rationalization for this odd idea I recall raising my hand and asking: “Suppose my classmate here and I started the week with five Forints each, and he bought himself some wood and nails and then built a table, while I bought some good Hungarian wine and ended the week smashed. Would my friend be required by the state to share the proceeds he would likely obtain from selling what he had built?”

By my best recollection this exchange immediately landed me expelled from the academically oriented high school and into a technical school, on the grounds that I was a reactionary, bourgeois student who should not be allowed to advance to other than a technical higher education. That would have been that expect for that fact that not long after this episode my father in the West had decided to stop trying to get me out of Hungary through official channels and sent in a professional smuggler—what Time Magazine in 1981 called a “flesh peddler”—to fetch me. When I, along with several adults and with the superb guidance of this professional, had been smuggled out successfully, I joined my father’s family in Munich. (The smuggler, by the way, was reported to have been shot dead at a later date as he was trying to rescue his girlfriend from Hungary—so much for the comparative quality of labors of love and labors for profit.) My father and his second wife both worked at Radio Free Europe where, in fact, there had been quite a few former fascists in the various Eastern European sections (not unusual back in those days when the American government tried to use all sorts of talent to do battle with the Soviets.)

To my chagrin, my father turned out to be several times the dictator compared with my mother. He had failed to go to the Olympics in is own prime because the games were cancelled during the Second World War. Prior to that he had won the European “pair oars without coxen” rowing championship. Subsequently he had firmly gotten it into his had that I would be his surrogate Olympian, probably the main reason for his rescuing me from communist Hungary. (The others may have been some measure of genuine fondness for a son and, also perhaps, that having a recent refuge from a communist country in the family would in time get him a free ocean voyage to the US by dint of an act of the US Congress in, I believe, 1952.)

As soon as I arrived in the West, I was subjected to a daily regime of merciless early morning exercises—a three mile run, tennis lessons, track and field after school and exhibition swimming for my father’s swimming classes. Seeing how this wasn’t at all my own idea, I was soon to become a very brooding, displeased kid, often beaten for my various “failures,” mostly consisting of my lack of enthusiasm for the athletic life to which I was being subjected.

In addition to this involuntary athletic servitude, I started to notice how anti-Semitic my father was, dissing Jews every chance he got, sometimes in the crudest form imaginable. He would claim, for example, that American Jewish bankers selected movie actors who looked Jewish to play heroic roles in Hollywood films they bank rolled so as to give Jews a good image around the world. He would give me a thrashing when I imprudently expressed praise for some Jew, such as a visiting jazz pianist at RFE.

Slowly but surely I began to form the notion that what I was experiencing and witnessing, both in my political and familiar histories, had significance beyond my own circumstances, although that is where they had their most immediate impact for me, of course. So to make a long story a bit shorter, once we had come to the USA, and I began to experience American culture via my high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania—two places I spent time during the first couple of months in my new country—I noticed that my circumstances were rather unusual. This was beginning to dawn on me even earlier, when while at an American high school in Munich, Germany, I had befriended a young man, Jimmy Loftus, who had a rather noticeably decent relationship with his own father. (I recall his walking with him once in front of me, with his father’s left armed draped around his shoulders, which made me choke up.)

One time Jimmy asked me to stay after school to play basketball and I told him I couldn’t because my father insists on my returning home after school; he replied, “Well just tell him you stayed to play a bit.” I told him I would get a thrashing if I did this, and he said, “Well, then hit him back.” That idea, I must report, turned into a paradigm breaker for me—I could not even fathom such a thing before Jimmy suggested it to me.

Once I had lived a bit in the US, however, I realized that kids where not taken to be their parents’ items of property, to do with as their whims or pleasures dictated. So following a particularly brutal altercation between him and me, I left my father’s house on my 18th birthday, never to return there.

My history with the Hungarian authorities, such as my “teachers” and commissars, as well as with my parents, highlighted for me the significance of a measure of human liberty within my own early life. But that’s not all. These elements of my personal history also alerted me to a problem people were having around me and indeed throughout human history and in many parts of the contemporary world. In time I would run across the works of Ayn Rand and other champions of human individual liberty and these would resonate with me most emphatically in light of my own budding understanding. But that wasn’t all.

For example, after reading Atlas Shrugged, while in the US Air Force at Andrews AFB, near Washington, DC, I had at first feared that my very positive response to the book was perhaps idiosyncratic, just as I had suggested to Rand when we met. So for entire weekends I and some fellow admirers of the work would sit in the main terminal cafeteria discussing Galt’s speech, checking it for possible mistakes, making sure it was basically sound, at least to the best of our abilities. Soon I began to take college courses at night, in philosophy, literature, political science, and so forth, in part to check out Rand’s ideas, to compare them to the prominent thinking that had come down to us from around the globe—I had already read some of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Montaigne, Plutarch, Cicero, and others, just as I was encountering Rand, so I realized that there were all these ideas about human affairs and the world at large circulating against which one can check new ones.

In time I would embark upon an academic career in philosophy in part because it just fit with my budding identity and in part because I thought it would be the best way not to become captive to my own very powerful particular and significant experiences. I believe now that I have done my checking thoroughly enough to come to the reasonable conclusions—not one with Platonic or Cartesian certainty but a certainly beyond a reasonable doubt—that Rand’ ideas are indeed sound at heart. And I decided in time, too, to devote myself to their better and better understanding, development and teaching.

The bottom line is this—with more to be gleaned from my memoir, The Man Without a Hobby, Adventures of a Gregarious Egoist (Hamilton Books, 2004): Individual liberty, in the tradition of John Locke, the Declaration of Independence and Ayn Rand, is a fundamental, universal human value for all human individuals (excepting only the crucially incapacitated who, however, themselves do best if the rest of us are free).

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