Is it possible some younger readers do not know who Ayn Rand was? Of course. Maybe even some older readers, so here is a short crude bio: 1905 – 1982; born in Russia as Elisa Rosenbaum on wrong side of the Russian revolution; family dislocated after being treated poorly by Bolsheviks; a bit of a student prodigy I think; declared herself an atheist in high school; moved to the United States in 1926 with an understandable grudge against the state; hung around Hollywood; odd jobs; then screen writing; reporter of sorts; Broadway play; philosipher; political activist and free (very) market capitalist; novelist, breaking through to fame with the novel Fountainhead; and then the ubiquitous Atlas Shrugged; then essays, lectures and energetic promotion of her “objectivist philosophy. She described Objectivism as, “the concept of man as a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.” She argued that the individual should exist for his own sake and believed in “the virtue of selfishness.”
She has been panned, sainted, condemned, laughed at, and lauded by famous Americans. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I think she was a sad, pathological witch, so if you idealize Rand, you can stop reading if you want, as any breakdown of good, bad and ugly will be prejudiced. But I will offer two sides of the coin and to pique your interest, I will admit that as a very young stupid man (boy), she impressed me and many of my friends — ergo my Ayn Rand moment.
Side One: Her books have sold over 500 million copies, and from her grave she still sells 800,000 books a year. She often lands on lists of most influential books or writers second only to the Bible. She has greatly influenced the Libertarians, right wing and Tea Party, who are often seen at rallies with signs that crying ”I am John Galt,” her hero of Atlas Shrugged. She was against the Vietnam war but loathed draft dodgers and homosexuals, some of whom hid their preferences in loyalty to her. Her books were praised by famous authors and derided by others as melodramatic garbage. She led with an iron hand a cabal-like circle that included Alan Greenspan who invited her to his swearing in at the Oval Office and who attended her funeral. So much for Wall Street…hey?
A new Atlas Shrugged II is in theatres, and vice presidential Candidate Paul Ryan required his staff to read her until he was slapped by his Catholic church, given she was an atheist and thought the poor were all takers. Ryan commented that of course he did not follow her anymore because she was an atheist and he was a Catholic, as if he did not know her philosophy. There remain well funded societies, institutions and think tanks that promote her philosophy. She is sainted by conservative radio and TV commentators. Rush Limbaugh calls her a prophet, and some Libertarian Party leaders say their movement would not exist without her. Academics have largely ignored her.
Side Two: Rand opposed democracy, preferring something like an oligarchy of the brave, heroic and successful; she spoke of the poor as takers and felt the masses were maggots(sound familiar). She was a heavy smoker and believed the government’s war against tobacco was a communist plot and believed that smoking symbolized “man’s victory over fire.” She later got lung cancer. She was addicted to amphetamines and wrote pieces praising embezzlers and serial killers. In a Slate review of two new books on Rand, Johann Hari writes about her praise of serial killer, William Hickman, who kidnapped, raped and dismembered a 12-year old girl, and sent her body to the police in pieces. Rand wrote praise for Hickman saying he represented, “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred…a brilliant and exceptional boy shimmering with immense , exceptional egotism.” She supported the European genocide of American Indians, because the Indians had not developed capitalism; and she felt the wealthy and powerful were the truly oppressed people. Hari writes: “The world (for her) was divided between a small minority of supermen and the naked, twisted figure of the individual incompetent.’” She denounced altruism.
Enough, there is more on each side of the coin, and her life is amazingly interesting, albeit a sad train wreck of personality disorders, but you cannot deny her influence or popularity. She now shines light on the tectonic plates of a world becoming more divided where, as Yeats wrote in The Second Coming, a poem for our times, the “center cannot hold.”
I read Rand’s books in junior high as many did (I’m not sure why), and she filled the bill and why not? I was middle class but privileged, lettering in four sports, and looking at a scholarship one way or the other at the college of my choice. The holidays held gifts and plenty. My palm held the world and all it could offer. This was a pleasant exciting narrative for a young man, who had seen little of the world or life. No limits, no rules, I was chosen and free.
It is just a metaphorical mark in time, but I define my absolute Ayn Rand moment at the high hurdle finals of a county track meet, which I won in heroic fashion after a photo finish, beating a traditional rival, who previously had triumphed. After the race, a school chum walked by and said, ” Good race.” I thought for a moment and with no thank you, replied, “Yes I know it was.”
Ugggh a bad pathetic memory. No thought of a coach who labored with my steps between hurdles and my form over them. No thought of my family who supported anything extracurricular and provided the resources to do well, including a great diet and a father who never missed a game. No thought of the school with a better than average facility. Certainly, no thought of my rival who frankly defeated me most of the time, not even courtesy to a friend who gave me a well-done, nor a nod to the low lifes in the stands who applauded and urged on my success. Not even a thought to the winds of good fortune.
” No, I did it.”
OK, allow me to compress time somewhat symbolically and simplistically:
The following district track meet did not go so well. As a 5’10” white boy, I ate a lot of dust. Even then, the Midwest was rusting. My father lost his job and struggled with bills from a long and losing battle my mom had with cancer, as insurance ran out. (Damn right I favor Obama Care and in fact single payer.) My clothes did not always fit well. I cracked a vertebrae in the next football season. Christmas was a book; there would be nights I was a bit hungry; and I was state and local college bound. This is not self pity and I remained a glass over the half -full mark guy, but somehow my new narrative and Ayn Rand did not fit together comfortably, but I kept track of her and observed people who were still enthralled and became interested in her from a new perspective over the last five years as the stake fell out of her heart and she rose from the dead.
Hari writes in his review. ” Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their boot prints far behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism’s opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor. What I do find incomprehensible is that there are people — large numbers of people — who see her writing not as psychopathy but as philosophy and urge us to follow her.”
I think I do comprehend somewhat. I think people will wake up a bit, but I don’t know when. We are shaped as much by our defeats as our victories and the size of our enemies. Some people never grow up, and some people can never get the “we” into their personal narrative. And, some are fearful, cornered, and they find in the words of Ayn Rand, a bulwark, a defense of their position and their personal narrative. For a few, it’s simply insidious. Being out of touch with the common people has real meaning.
Rand was Paul Ryan’s greatest influence, and I am sure she is laughing hysterically in her grave. Ryan never lost a high hurdle race, but he soon may. He has run a just under three hour marathon. It’s part of his narrative. Hari concludes his review of recent Rand biographies by saying they helped him little to comprehend the number of her followers. He says the books are, “thrilling psychological portraits of a horribly damaged woman who deserves the one thing she spent her life raging against: compassion.”
Note: Google Ayn Rand, and you will find the Slate review of two new books on her life. Wikipedia provided some dates and confirmed other facts. For grins and more, there is public Facebook page titled Ayn Rand collected social security, which is worth following.