Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Who was Ayn Rand and Why is She Still a Big Deal?

“Observe how many people evade, rationalize and drive their minds into a state of blind stupor, in dread of discovering that those they deal with- their "loved ones" or friends or business associates or political rulers- are not merely mistaken, but evil. Observe that this dread leads them to sanction, to help and to spread the very evil whose existence they fear to acknowledge.”
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

Let me admit I'm not a keen  student  of philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1985).   I certainly was aware in college of fellow students who read her novels and admired or deplored her Objectivist  philosophy.  Most of the articles I read about her made me think her philosophy of hyper-individualism was an overreaction to the collectivist ethics of revolutionary Russia, the place of her birth.  I didn't think I had to  to read a book saying people needed to be more selfish, less charitable. Nor one to give more credit to elitists than other writers and pundits already provided in surplus. But I supposed one book needed to be read since she was so controversial and liked by many.
Rand's background I think is a clue to her obsessions. Her family were Russian Jews, and they were alos part of the urban bourgeoisie, an urban and well-educated  family with some property interests (her father was a pharmacist  and a supported of a rival socialist party, the Menshieiks.)   Her father lost  his business to the Bolsheviks in Petrograd when Ms. Rand was a teenager and they fled to the Crimea.  Later the family returned to the metropolis--later called Leningrad--after the civil war. She received an  education at a state university, and was expelled with other students for a time for not following the doctrines of the new state system.   
She left Russia in the mid-twenties and came to New York City.  She really liked the skyscrapers and the bustle of the new world so she stayed, living with family members for a time in Chicago.  Eventually like many young people looking for become something, she found her way out to Hollywood where she worked as a an extra in movies like Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 story of Jesus, "King of Kings".  She worked in the costume department of RKO studios and began writing screenplays and plays in her spare time.
By the mid-thirties she had a play --a murder mystery--running on Broadway. She  worked on movie scenarios in the studio factory system and wrote "The Fountainhead", a book about an uncompromising architect named Howard Roack.  It was published in 1941 and was a best seller.  A movie was made of the film in 1949 with Cary Cooper and Patricia Neal.  In a ironic twist, like her book's main character, Rand didn't like the film adaptation on many levels. 
The book that she is best remembered for is "Atlas Shrugged", published in 1957.  She had by this time developed an intellectual circle in New York City centered around her ideas. One of her followers was the future Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. Mr. Greenspan later presided over the Fed when it adopted a "hands off" policy toward the Wall Street securities and credit-default boomlet that led up to the economic crash of 2008. 
  America in the Cold War era (1947-1992) was already a nation where collectivism or even the most watered-down versions  were despised. Self-centered persons of all financial stripes were quite amply rewarded.   So, where was the fire, Ayn? 
Objectivism was, to me, nothing more or less than a philosophy more geared to commercial success than intellectual rigor.  There's something to be said for simple ideas clearly brought out, but the  American philosophy  of Ralph Waldo Emerson--with the great emphasis on "Self-Reliance"---and the careful personal protection of the people from government laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and later on propelled to modernity by the modern conservative movement  seemed already to have staked out the place for the individual in the "polis".   
 Besides, even as a non-believer in God as I was as a student in college ,  I realized that any decent philosophy and religious teaching I was aware of called on people to try, in Aldous Huxley's phrase, "to just be a little nicer to each other".    
The major work by Rand I have read and have returned to from time to time is a slim tome of essays called "The Virtue of Selfishness". Co-written with psychologist and Rand acolyte Nicholas Brenden, it was published in 1964.   The book essentially is  warmed-over, cold blooded  cruel-to-be-kind social Darwinism only with a fetish for eliminating anything society asks people to do for the greater good or for the poor or victimized or handicapped, no matter how small. 
 Nothing in that book's fifteen or so essays--or in the film documentary or articles about her--inspired me to want to read any of her famous novels "The Fountainhead" (1941) or "Atlas Shrugged" (1957).  

"Virtue of Selfishness" as a book is a dedication to stamping out anything that supported the notion of the modern American or European "mixed economy" where government has a role, though not a predominant one,  in regulation and protection for citizens of all levels  in a private economy. All state action for the benefit of others is seen as irrational and unjustified.  To Rand and her ilk, all roads that would benefit thy neighbors or the larger society is a slippery slope to collectivism.  There  are no compromises, no mixed-economic regulations and supports for small or large business  or individuals and so on.

Ms. Rand, to me, seemed to be overreacting to her family misfortunes and experiences under Bolshevism and the chaos and political turmoil of the  revolutionary Russia of her youth. She thought any help for just about anybody was irrational, and would  lead society inevitably to totalitarianism.  To me, a very secular atheist at the time as she was, this seemed too much, a fear of state power in a nation where state power was more diffused than almost any other capitalist-pluralistic society. She and Dr. Branden seemed to be providing a cure for a social "disease" that didn't exist in 1980's America.  
 Even an ultra-conservative like William F. Buckley (who said jokingly ot an interviewer in 2003 that he had to be "flogged"  into reading through "Atlas Shrugged"), the late neo-Conservative Christopher Hitchens,  and former Reagan aide and best-selling conservative writer Dinesh D'Sousa had or have sharp reservations about her teachings.   

So it surprises me that Ms. Rand and her teachings are still popular, especially with the new breed of ultra-conservatives .   GOP House Budget guru Paul Ryan is a big fan, although he recently denounced her teachings when he was criticized by Catholic officials for trying to meld Randism with church teachings.  We'll see how others in the Republican far right do, trying to "square the circle" of being a practitioner of economic heartlessness and still pretend to prescribe to basic Judeo-Chrisitan precepts.    
A preface to the video, from ThinkProgress.org:  

"Some of the right's leading political and media lights have heaped praise upon Rand. The author of the Republicans' new budget plan to gut Medicare and Medicaid, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), has said Rand is the reason he entered politics. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) have both declared themselves devotees of her writing. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has his law clerks watch the film adaptation of Rand's book The Fountainhead. She's also received accolades from right-wing pundits Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, John Stossel, and Andrew Napolitano.

"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."




  1. Excellent read and I think you're right. Her philosophy is a cure for "a social "disease" that didn't exist in America."
    I think her ideas lead to nothing but anarchy.

  2. Well put Lorie.

    Thanks for your feedback.

  3. Instead of this video, just post the videos of her interviews. If you watch them, you will see how cold hearted she really is.

  4. I have not read her books and have no desire to. There is one conservative writer who I have read some of and appreciate her: Taylor Caldwell. But Ayn Rand is just scary.

  5. Thanks Mary Ellen. Yes, "scary" was a word that crosses my mind when I re-read her doctrines and see who in Washington now likes her.

  6. I am grateful that she is not alive to run for any public office. We have enough of these inhumane creatures as it is.

    "Ms. Rand, to me, seemed to be overreacting to her family misfortunes and experiences under Bolshevism and the chaos and political turmoil of the revolutionary Russia of her youth"

    She might also have gained insights from her experience, but, I believe, her choice was true to her nature.

    " --who in Washington now likes her. "
    Willard Romney is Ayn Rand incarnate--has he spoken of her, or does he believe anyone's philosophy is worthy of his approval?.

  7. I am grateful that she is not alive to run for any public office. We have enough of these inhumane creatures as it is.

    "Ms. Rand, to me, seemed to be overreacting to her family misfortunes and experiences under Bolshevism and the chaos and political turmoil of the revolutionary Russia of her youth"

    She might also have gained insights from her experience, but, I believe, her choice was true to her nature.

    " --who in Washington now likes her. "
    Willard Romney is Ayn Rand incarnate--has he spoken of her, or does he believe anyone's philosophy is worthy of his approval?.

  8. My deletion. My comments posted twice.

  9. Yes, we have quite a trove of oddballs getting votes for high office these days.

    Perhaps it was something in her nature, Dragon. I hadn't considered that.

    I think Romney's economics---pretty much lands somewhere between Ayn Rand and a living carictature of Thurston Howell III.

    What kind of tone-deaf politician talks about having an elevator for all his cars in a job-distressed nation?

  10. "What kind of tone-deaf politician talks about having an elevator for all his cars in a job-distressed nation?"
    He isn't t

  11. "What kind of tone-deaf politician talks about having an elevator for all his cars in a job-distressed nation?"
    He isn't tone-deaf. He just doesn't give a damn.

    Everything about him reeks of sociopath.

  12. Excellent article about her and her philosophy, Doug. I have read both her main books. The Fountainhead came to me from my dad, as did much of my early scifi. He was a great believer in being acquainted with different philosophies, whether you ascribe to them or not.

    When I was in college, her novels/philosophy were a big deal. But then, you know college students -- any excuse to stay up all night discussing "profound ideas." It's clear how much she was a product of her earlier years. She was definitely a strange character.

    And, BTW, Who IS John Galt?

  13. Thanks Christy. I was really trying to understand why this philosophy is still popular. Good for your dad and yourself for reading material you might not find palatable to your own thinking.

    Yes, in my own college days I remember having a few late-night beer "symposiums" over a topic or two.

    "Strange character" is a good coda to Rand's public career. Thanks again.

  14. A trove of oddballs, indeed, Doug.

    Cal is right - all one has to do is listen to her interviews to see what a CHB (Cold-Hearted B____) she really is. I read most of her books - and came away thinking that the same analysis applied to her as applied to Hitler - "...she was right about a few things...."

    As Chris Hedges pointed out recently, this is what happens when a country - or a civilization - goes insane; the crazies are revered, and the sane ones reviled.

  15. Like the old joke I remember from "Laugh In" asa kid, with an actor dressed as Hitler saying, "Everybody hates me now, but how about some credit for all those Volkswagens?"

    Yeah, it says something about this right-radical overpolarized country right now when you see what twisted old stuff passes for "political philosophy" from tea partiers, Fox News and the Congressional class of 2010.

  16. I have to confess I have never actually read Ayn Rand, but from what I know of her she is clearly insane.

    She has it seems, been damaged by collectivism and her entire life appears to be an attempt to get even with Lenin.

    She is obsessively egotistical, self centred and she must be related to Margaret Thatcher I think.

    To the half literate acquisitive classes the very simplicity of her mantra is what I suspect they find so attractive.

    Simplistic and self justifying these are the politics of spitefulness that are turned into a cult and is just what those who live what Socrates might call the unexamined life - demand from their mentors to fill the bourgeois void they inhabit.

    The petty bourgeois daughter with her coterie of strictly middle-brow followers (and what I think may be her largely oedipal acolytes as seen in the video) forms a coalition of the emotionally stunted and the perpetually bitter.

    She is insane of course because she fails to grasp the fundamental principle of the social construction of reality. All human existence is inescapably 'collectivist' and failing to understand that is the primary genesis of madness, or the idiosyncratic world views of those that seek to deny the existence of the very reason for their being - which to believers is called 'God' - and to the non-believer is called Nature or Science.... it seems you have seen it from both perspectives Doug

    To me then Ayn Rand is neither science nor art, but the epitome of mediocrity whose the doctrine of superficiality cannot justifiably ever be elevated above the level of raving I'm afraid.

    She is the voice of the global Creep!

  17. You pretty much summed up better all I was trying to say in this blog in your four sentences, AA.

    Creep is a good word when you watch tape of Rand in her interviews . "CREEP" was also the ackronym for Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President in 1972, the group that brought us the crimes of the Watergate scandals. (This is not relevant per se, but I couldn't resist adding it.)

    A Thatcher-Rand genealogical link would make for an interesting social science term paper. I believe Thatcher once said "there is no such thing as society" or some other twaddle.

    Some people should not be allowed to write or think in short and declarative remarks.

    Yes, Ms. Rand suffered no modern serious philosophers gladly---all the better for her flock. It's so simple a creed--who has to meditate or perform good works to achieve a higher plane of selfishness?--no wonder it travels so well with "half-literates".

    Like Thatcher, I agree she certainly brought out oedipal impulses in her followers, past and present.

    The weird thing is how much this stuff--"Atlas Shrugged", for instance--still sells over here. It should be noted that about half of the 800, 000 of this one novel reissued in recent years are reportedly distributed free by the Ayn Rand Society. (Why and where I not sure.)

    The main reason why I wanted to get this out here for discussion ,as you likely gathered, is that too many mainstream politicians lately expressed open admiration for this doctrine. Yet they are also embracing the tea party principles of "family first" and conservative religious doctrine. This is doublethink to the max.

    These people are grown men and women wallowing in some adolescent notions of an idealistic freedom---a false mountaintop if there ever was one.

    The mediocre individual--convinced his lack of ability to lord it over others is an external problem--climbs this imaginary Alpine illusion to escape real or imagined constraints. Or he or she lashes out against the usual cast of scapegoats (trade unionists, liberal and socialist academics, public insurance programs, open and unsanctioned volunteerism, religious charity groups, etc.)

    This is the sort of stuff that fascism built a foundation on.

    I agree the foundation of society is collectivist--even the most uncompromising artist like Beethoven must have an audience after all. There is something in Objectivism that tampers with the whole issue of civilized behavior--it's no wonder that it appeals to radicals who haven't seen or learned enough about life to know they cannot remake it from whole cloth.

    Thanks, AA, for adding some clear thinking to all the other good comments I've received on this topic.

  18. Exactly!!! Ahhh, but what a feat -- to believe 2 or 3 conflicting things at once. Hopefully, it will just let them run around in circles.

  19. It's a staggering action of intellectual group onanism, Christy.