It’s no secret that Ayn Rand has been a central figure in modern American conservative and libertarian thought. Her work is often, unfortunately, disconnected from its historical context (”along with her most avid fans,” Jennifer Burns explains, Rand “saw herself as a genius who transcended time”). Yet Rand’s most famous works, particularly the novel Atlas Shrugged, have seen increased popularity and attention at specific moments in American conservative and libertarian political activism.
We are, according to many pundits, policymakers, observers, and critics from across the political spectrum, witnessing one such resurgence alongside new forms of right-wing activism and policymaking in the US. I’m an unapologetic leftist (certainly this is wildly shocking for my regular readers, yes?), but I don’t think you have to be particularly radical to take issue with Ayn Rand’s brand of philosophy, or the US federal and state policies that are increasingly inspired by its vision of the world.
As one recent article summed it up:
During her lifetime, Rand advocated “the virtue of selfishness,” declared altruism to be “evil,” opposed Medicare and all forms of government support for the middle-class and the poor, and condemned Christianity for advocating love and compassion for the less fortunate. Rand also dismissed the feminist movement as a “false” and “phony” issue, said a female commander in chief would be “unspeakable,” characterized Arabs as “almost totally primitive savages,” and called government efforts to aid the handicapped and educate “subnormal children” an attempt to “bring everybody to the level of the handicapped.”
Which brings me to a particularly … surprising example of this most recent wave of Randianism: The ATLAS SHRUG.
Image (c) yarnmarket.com
The pattern blurb reads:
Who is John Galt? Inspired by the blockbuster book by Ayn Rand, the Atlas Shrug is more than a fashion statement. It’s a statement about modern society. The construction is reminiscent of railway lines, in the color of the metal created by the brilliant industrialist. Knit your own Atlas Shrug in Caledon Hills yarn and tell the world that you value your independence.
Let me be clear: I don’t know a thing about the shrug’s talented designer, Sandi Prosser, who has given the world some really beautiful patterns in the past, or about YarnMarket’s business philosophy (though I do know from personal experience that they offer excellent customer service, and speedy shipping at a reasonable cost). I have no interest in badmouthing a hardworking designer or an independent yarn shop. And I have no idea why this pattern exists. Maybe it’s truly intended to inspire some kind of Objectivist fashion movement. Or maybe it’s just meant to be an apolitical literary reference, like a Doctor Who scarf or a Gryffindor tie.
What I do know is that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this damn shrug since I first saw it. So I’ve been asking myself, WHY does it bother me so much? It’s just a knitting pattern, after all. And I’ve realized that part of my problem (other than what I’ll freely admit is a fierce mistrust of all things Randian) is the use of knitting in particular to celebrate Rand’s “virtue of selfishness,” and to promote individual self-interest as the key to social, political, and economic good.
Knitting can be a solitary or individual activity, of course, particularly within the consumer cultures that have recently emerged around fiber crafts. But the history of knitting in many parts of the world is, as Anne Macdonald and Joanne Turney tell us, also the history of knitting circles, of stitch-and-bitch nights, of women-friendly social spaces and of radical collective action.
Baby blanket that a bigass group of us made, collectively, for a dear friend.
And the history of knitting is also, very clearly, a history of charity — a legacy of, in Christian language, “caring for the least among us.”
While Rand and her followers celebrate the “virtue of selfishness,” the history and current practice of knitting is actively contrary to that philosophy. Many knitters give away more handmade goods than they keep, and many of those knitted items are unselfishly given not to friends or loved ones, but to strangers in need.
Where Rand saw “subnormal children,” for instance, knitters see the loving parents of premature infants, or people living meaningful lives with disabilities, all of whom could perhaps use (as could we all) a bit of comfort, encouragement, humor, or warmth. Dozens of charities deliver hand-knitted toys, clothing, and blankets to those families and individuals.
In fact, read any list of knitting charities, and you’ll find a testament not simply to our generosity, but to our humanity — to our common desire to reach out to one another at our most vulnerable moments. We devote countless hours to crafting gifts of love and support for the sick and injured, for the displaced, for the dying, for the bereaved. We knit for people we will never know or meet — caps for cancer patients, shawls for hospice residents, burial clothing for those mourning a miscarriage or infant death.
Like knitting, charity has, in many cultural traditions, been a feminine pursuit, and having leisure time to devote to recreational crafts or charitable works is a sign of class privilege. In modern European and US history, benevolent charity toward the “lower” classes and races has been central to the definition of white middle-class women as morally superior. In some later post, we’ll talk more about how craft-based charitable endeavors have been and still can be totally fucked-up, imperialist projects (for instance, when white American missionaries taught Native women to knit in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Euro/American heteronormative gendered behaviors and family arrangements). Charity is always political, and it’s always about power. But for the moment, let’s look at what charitable knitting gets right.
For one thing, charitable knitting has the potential to make the personal political, to create spaces not only for sharing, compassion, and cross-class solidarity, but also for critical consciousness and social support in a world where women’s lives are too often marked by violence, victimization, and isolation.Those lists of charities tell us something about ourselves. We knit for the women and children who have survived family and relationship violence, but whose continued survival depends on underfunded shelters and volunteers. We knit for pregnant teens, and young women caring for their new infants. We knit to celebrate new life, to commemorate the dead, and as a testament to the possibility of survival. One charity gives comfort shawls to the mothers and sisters of women murdered by their husbands, boyfriends, or intimate partners. Through another organization, survivors of sexual violence make scarves that are given to victims of sexual violence when they enter the hospital for emergency treatment.
We knit when we encounter the violence, poverty, and loss that are endemic to modern, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist societies. And, as they brandish Atlas Shrugged in one hand and the federal budget in the other, US policymakers bank on it. They know that women’s charitable and unpaid labors the world over are the only way to make up, however inadequately, for the injustices of global capitalism, and for the disappearing safety nets of a steadily-dismantled welfare state. When Medicare and Social Security are successfully gutted and the old folks’ homes don’t have money to pay the heating bills, Grandma is going to need those handknit shawls.
In other words, knitting actually has a long history of ameliorating the suffering caused by the individual selfishness — and the corporate and state greed — that Rand and her followers find “virtuous.”
Where the profit motives of the pharmaceutical industry make millions of mothers and fathers in sub-Saharan Africa vulnerable to early death from HIV/AIDS, knitters send handmade bears and dolls to their surviving partners and children.
Where the arrogance of militarized war and empire-building wreaks violence and havoc, knitters send blankets, sweaters, socks, and hats.
When women in the US are brutalized by their intimate partners and the state is unable or unwilling to support them, knitters send afghans to make life in the shelter a little more livable.
When the selfish greed of global capitalism and imperial power create surplus populations and impoverished classes of wage workers, knitters literally clothe the poor, sending warm handknits to homeless shelters in New Jersey, tribal reservations in North America, and people living in poverty all over the world.
And when those surplus people in the US — the poor, marginalized, addicted, and mentally ill — are disproportionately funneled into a profit-driven prison system, knitters send yarn, needles, and supplies. And then they volunteer to teach inmates to knit.
Clearly, no charity is a solution to any real social or economic problem. None of these gifts or organizations can touch the structural causes of poverty, injustice, violence, or war. A crocheted teddy bear does not cure AIDS; a handknit sweater does nothing to combat homelessness; knitting lessons don’t move us any closer to abolishing the prison industrial complex. If your neighborhood is studded with deadly landmines, maybe a pair of socks sent from the country that helped put them there is actually an insult. Those are problems that we need to confront in direct, collective, big-picture ways.
In the meantime, though, what our charitable practices might do is make the individual hardship, suffering, and violence wrought by those problems a little easier to survive. And yeah, I’ll take these small, hopeful acts and gifts of love over the cynical “virtue” of selfishness any day.
Listen, shit just got real earnest in here. Clearly we need to tell some jokes before this becomes a blog about my Feelings. You know what we need? A CONTEST.
Okay! There are two ways to enter this contest:
(1) SATIRE! Write some alternative instructions for a Randian knitting pattern! Like “bind off all stitches. Block your finished shrug in the sweat and tears of the workers.” Or, “continue knitting until sleeve measures 17 inches, or until John Galt finishes his interminable monologue, whichever comes first.” Or…
(2) SINCERITY! Post a comment telling us about your favorite knitting or craft-based charity.
I’ll pick a comment at random, and the winner will receive the fabulous prize of: one skein of Manos del Uruguay Wool Clasica or Manos Lace in the colorway of their choice, AND … my charitable labor! I’ll make and send one handmade hat, shawl, or toy to the charity of their choice.
ETA: And let’s say the contest ends May 1 when I wake up in the morning.
ETA: For all us so-called “selfish” knitters who knit mainly or only for ourselves: This post is by no means meant to be a prescription for charitable knitting, or an indictment against knitting for oneself. Just a comment on how the feminine, middle-class history of recreational knitting is inseparable from the feminine, middle-class history of charitable works. And I think there’s something to celebrate there, even if it’s not a 100% awesome thing.
And surely, in a world that depends so much on women “selflessly” caring for others — on an exploitative sexual and global division of labor and on the wide range of unpaid and underpaid domestic work done by women all over the world — some forms of selfishness might be badass forms of resistance (e.g. the refusal to care for others at the expense of one’s own wellbeing). Rand’s “rational self-interest,” though? Doesn’t get us there.