Cancel Culture: How Ayn Rand's Dystopian Novella Predicted It

A hauntingly similar image is painted in one of Ayn Rand's lesser-known works of fiction.

Legislators, activists, and school reformers have recently vowed to usher us into a new era of equity. Some groups will no longer have a different lifestyle than others. Some groups will no longer receive a distinct education than others. "We will burn down this system and replace it," Hawk Newsome says, unless reform occurs.

For a preview of these glories, we have only to open Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Collectivists attain their dream in this dystopian novella by destroying towns and literature, then adopting central planning. Everyone is now on an equal footing: everyone is equally impoverished, equally housed, and equally constrained in what they may say, do, and think.

If dystopian literature, as Jen Maffessanti points out, helps us comprehend the threats we face, then Rand's novella is particularly timely. Anthem elucidates the true meaning of collectivist principles and language, which jeopardize not only our rights but also our freedom to express them.

Anthem opens by foregrounding the triumph of the collective through the narrator’s struggle to express and justify his thoughts. In this world, there is no “I,” only the collective “we,” which has become synonymous with good. The novel opens,

It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. . . . And well we know that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.

Only the “Council of Vocations” can approve such writing. The narrator, Equality 7-2521, struggles to conform even as he defies such rules: “We strive to be like all our brother men, for all men must be alike.” But he is not.

At six feet, Equality 7-2521 towers over other boys. His teacher warns, “There is evil in your bones.” In school, he is unhappy because “learning was too easy. This is a great sin, to be born with a head which is too quick.” How does he know? “The teachers told us so.”

Eventually, Equality 7-2521 tries to imitate the slow learners. But the teachers know, “and we were lashed more often than all the other children.” And when he turns fifteen, the Council of Vocations places him in the Home of the Street Sweepers, where he will have no more opportunities to display his “quick” mind. Equity achieved.

Anthem anticipates F. A. Hayek’s later warnings about “our poisoned language.” In The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism Hayek observes, “so long as we speak in language based in erroneous theory, we generate and perpetuate error.”

That error is evident in the use of words to convey entire moral arguments. In Anthem, “we” and “the collective” are “good,” just as, Hayek observed, “social” now designates what is “morally right.” And “what at first seems a description imperceptibly turns into a prescription”: distributive justice.

A similar shift is now occurring in the use of “equity.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded instance was from 1315, from which point “equity” has been used to mean “the quality of being equal or fair; fairness, impartiality, even-handed dealing.”

As with the idea of "educational equality," "equity" now refers to the moral obligation to provide equitable outcomes: "Equity acknowledges that some individuals are at a greater disadvantage than others and seeks to compensate for their misfortunes and impairments."

What does "Equity" do to accomplish this? It "seeks to go above and beyond by providing more to those who are in need than to those who are not." Equity tries to ensure that everyone's lifestyle is equal, even if it means uneven access to and distribution of goods."

To put it another way, the unrecognized authorities treat individuals unequally in order to attain "equity." The results of such committees are depicted in Rand's Anthem. The Council of Vocations creates equitable lives by bringing together individuals from all walks of life in the Home of the Street Sweepers, where Equality 7-2521's team comprises of a gifted artist and a guy who is unable to use his broom owing to frequent convulsions. To say the least, their work is inconsistent.

When Equality develops electric light in secret and takes it to the Council of Scholars, they reject his discovery because it was created only by him. It would also devastate the Department of Candles and "wreck the World Council's Plans," which had taken fifty years to approve the candle. They demand that it be destroyed, implying that they want to keep their world in the dark.

For the collective, the goal is control of outcomes, not freedom or human flourishing. And to maintain that control, they make sure that no one can see the truth, much less say it. In the Home of the Street Sweepers at night, the men undress silently in the dim candlelight: “For all must agree with all, and they cannot know if their thoughts are thoughts of all, and so they fear to speak.”

Over the last few months, we have come closer to Rand’s dystopia of fear, silencing, and distorted “equity.” In a recent survey at the University of North Carolina, students across the political spectrum reported that they (like the Street Sweepers) engaged in self-censorship in classrooms, remaining silent even when their opinions related to topics in class. They are afraid.

They are not alone. Online mobs are destroying careers and lives, as John Stossel observes in “Cancel Culture is Out of Control.” He urges those of us who can speak to do so.

However, when governments work to undermine free speech and other liberties, it becomes more difficult to embrace them. ACA 5 was just enacted by the California legislature, allowing for "race- and gender-conscious remedies" to remedy inequities in university admissions and government contracts. Proposition 209, which prevents the state from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any group or individual on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity, would be overturned by this equality initiative.

If the residents of California approve it, the government will have the legal authority to discriminate against individuals. Yet, as Rand argues:

Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).

Rand encourages people to take a stand. "The greatest shame today is that of those who accept collectivism by moral default," Rand writes in the Author's Foreword to the American version of Anthem.

We simply have to turn to Leonard Read for role models. Anthem had been published in England in 1938, but had been rejected by American publishers, he discovered. In 1946, the same year he created FEE, he published the first American version with Pamphleteers, believing it merited a wider audience.

Our choices will differ, but as John Stossel points out, those of us who have the ability to speak up must do so. Otherwise, we'll be playing Anthem in the twenty-first century.

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