Darryl Cunningham is no stranger to courting controversy. One of his previous books, “How to Fake a Moon Landing,” exposed the scientifically invalid arguments made against climate change, the anti-vaccine movement, the environmental safety of fracking, and even the suggestion that the Apollo moon landing was a conspiracy. Based on his track record, Cunningham’s latest book is both a surprise and right in his wheelhouse.
“The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis” may not have the hard science background of Cunningham’s previous books, but the cartoonist seems equally at home challenging and debunking economic strains of thought while courting the controversy that “The Age of Selfishness” is certain to garner.
Split into three segments, the book serves first as a biography of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivism philosophical outlook has been cited by political leaders Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, as well as Alan Greenspan, both a former disciple of Rand and the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Cunningham also examines the 2008 financial crash and the role of deregulation in the crisis. Finally, the third part of the piece examines the psychological differences in conservative and liberal political thought — and if you still think you might sway someone’s beliefs with a Twitter meme, Cunningham and his research have some bad news for you. CBR News caught up with Darryl to discuss the book, the controversy sure to surround it and how both liberal and conservative schools of thought feature many positive assets.
CBR News: How much time did you spend trying to break the intricacies of the financial scandals that led to 2008’s crash down into layman’s terms? I’ve read many of Matt Taibbi’s banking scandal articles and failed to grasp what the banks were doing, but you managed to put it in terms that made sense to me.
Darryl Cunningham: I did read a lot of Matt Taibbi’s “Rolling Stone” articles and much else — he’s excellent. My process involves spending months reading anything I can find, both online and actual books, which tend to be stacked around my workspace in great piles. When I get to a point where I feel I can explain the subject to another person and they themselves can understand it, then I know I understand it properly myself. “The Age of Selfishness” took two years overall to complete.
You’ve tackled subjects like psychiatry (“Psychiatric Tales”) and science deniers (“How to Fake a Moon Landing”) before. Did addressing economics feel like the next natural step in exposing systemic unfairness?
It did seem like the natural next step. I looked around and saw that economics is very poorly understood by the general public. People say there’s a gap in the public’s understanding science, but that is as nothing compared to the grand canyon-sized gulf that separates Joe Public from grasping the intricacies of the financial sector. What are options, futures, bonds, credit default swops, and collateralized debt obligations? The news media has generally done a poor job of explaining this apparent wizardry to those who have been most effected by the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis.
By most accounts, the protagonists of Ayn Rand’s novels are viewed as cartoonish fantasies. Is that broad simplicity that makes them so embraceable to readers? They’re like Han Solo, except he takes his reward and ditches the Rebellion at the end of the first movie.
Rand developed a whole philosophy — the philosophy of Objectivism — in order to justify her own selfishness and contempt for the needy. She’s little known in Europe, but in the States, thirty years after her death, she still has a huge following. Her books, especially “Atlas Shrugged,” sell in the thousands. Top businessmen and politicians name her as an influence. Objectivism is a very convenient philosophy if you’re someone who venerates your own needs over everyone else’s. For the purposes of the book, I felt if I could understand her, I could get to the nub of what has gone wrong in Western politics and economics over the past three decades.
Do you feel you understand her better?
I do, and strangely, even though I dislike her politics, I find myself sympathetic to her as a person. Her lack of empathy for other people was not a choice she ever made for herself. It was an integral part of her personality — something that couldn’t be changed and that ultimately damaged her closest relationships with people and left her alone. Ironically, she would have detested my sympathy for her.
You said she’s not well known outside the States. Is there something distinctly American about her philosophy that connects here but doesn’t translate to a European audience?
Rand appeals to the strong anti-government feeling in the U.S. that has no equivalent in Europe. I don’t know why this split exists. Maybe it’s a hangover from the more individualistic frontier times? Europe is old and our relationships with our governments go back centuries. The idea of having a government is bedded in much more [in Europe].
Why are so many people who don’t remotely resemble the self-made, self-determined “heroes” of her writing sympathetic to these figures? And does the persecution complex that seemingly all of humanity experiences play into it?
Everyone likes to think they’re unique — and this is especially true when you’re young and may feel like something of an outsider anyway. I think this is a good part of the reason why Rand is attractive to teenagers in particular. Rand offers an easily graspable “truth” that puts the individual in the center of the universe while portraying the great mass of people as sheep-like second-handers — people who owe all the improvements in their lives to better men. Do you want to feel superior over others? Then read Rand.
While you give credit several times to conservatives’ family values and personal responsibility, you’re pretty harsh on Tea Party Republicans and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Is it fair to suggest that the overall shift toward conservative politics makes it difficult for liberals to find their starting point, as the “liberal” elements in government are already starting where the conservative parties were twenty-five years ago?
In both the U.K. and the U.S. the political left has been totally vanquished. The levers of power are entirely in the hands of the right. Obama and the modern Democratic party are not in any way left-leaning. They are a center-right party that only seems left wing, because since Reagan, the Republicans have shifted so far to the right. The Democrats have moved into the center ground of politics where previously moderate Republicans were — and moderate Republicans are almost an extinct species now.
Let’s not forget that Obamacare was originally Romneycare. The danger the Tea Party pose is very similar to the one presented by United Kingdom Independence Party in the U.K., in that their presence on the scene pulls all politics further to the right, so that mainstream policies become even more punitive and uncaring. There needs to be a counterbalancing movement on the left, and as yet, I see no sign of such a thing arising.
In the book, you discuss the psychological differences between how conservatives view the world compared to how liberals view the world. When you consider how deeply rooted these diverse outlooks are and how early they manifest, how do we as the human race find commonality?
Both conservative and liberal values, when in balance, create great things. Liberals like novelty and embrace change. They are the ones who generate great art, and bring scientific and social progress. The dark side of liberalism is that these values can bring with them huge social upheaval and even chaos. Conservative values are useful in these times because they bring stability and help glue society together. In times of war, we all become more right wing. We have to in order to survive. I’m not just saying this. There is much scientific research to back this up, which I detail in the book.
It’s a common conservative belief that higher education indoctrinates people into liberalism. The evidence suggests otherwise. People arrive at their political beliefs long before they reach adulthood. Higher education, especially science and the arts, attracts liberals with their love of novelty and change. We all are what we are and there’s not much changing it. How do we find a balance that will lessen that vast inequalities of our societies and give everyone a chance to enrich themselves? I wish I knew.
There are, for liberals, some serious doomsday scenarios regarding the consolidation of economic power, but the human race has survived most of its history with vast economic imbalances. I mean, eventually, the pendulum swings back, right?
I would hope so. If younger people would just get out and vote it would make a huge difference to the political makeup of the U.S. At the moment, it’s older people who mostly vote, and as they tend to be more conservative, the political situation reflects this. It would help enormously too if money wasn’t such a determining factor in elections. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010 has been a disaster for democracy in the U.S.
Do you have any concerns or thoughts about how this book will be received in America? There is a distinct Americans recalcitrance to “foreign” criticism.
I expect conservatives and Randians not to like it. That’s fine. I can deal with that. The book isn’t especially a crit of the U.S., but of the particular form of capitalism that’s dominant in the world at the moment. But even if the book was entirely about the U.S., I’d have every right to be critical of it. Free speech means having to hear things you don’t like occasionally.
Have you seen any conservative comments on the advances yet?
[I’ve seen] quite a few [comments] on extracts of the book I’d put online, and they were as upset and savage in their commentary as you’d expect.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book of one-page science strips. It’s a general science book, using a six panel a page format. The tight format is a challenge and a pleasure to work with. There’s no room for fat in six panels. You have just five panels to get your information across and then a punchline. They used to say about Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy” newspaper strip, that by the time you’d decided not to read it, you’d already read it. I’m attempting to achieve a similar effect with these science strips, so that people are soaking up interesting facts about the world, while hardly being aware of it. I’ve no title for this book yet. It’s to be decided. Some examples can be seen on my blog.
“The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis” is in stores now.
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