Friday, November 06, 2009

The Cult of Ayn Rand

Couple new biographies of Ayn Rand are out. As a former Objectivist, which for a brief point in my life had me politically and philosophically to the right of Genghis Khan, I can recall sitting up all night arguing over the truth of whether it was wrong to steal a piece of bubble gum in order to save your mother's life. (According to Objectivism, it is wrong. You'd probably do it, but it would be wrong. Been a while since I got into a beer-fueled sophomoric argument this goofy. Ah, the good old days ...)

There are no shades of gray in Objectivism. Which is why Mama Ayn liked Mickey Spillane's books. Good guys, bad guys, this side of the line or that, period.

Who is John Galt? Why, he is the man! (Kind of an intellectual version of Snake Plissken, and just as realistic. I will stop the motor of the world! Galt said. Yeah. And the good guys will all live in the valley and ride the rails of Rearden metal ...)

Objectivists thought that Libertarians were commie pinkos -- and thieves, for having swiped Mama Ayn's ideas without giving her credit, then perverting them.

I had a buddy who was deeper into it than I, and he went off to New York to join the Collective and worship at Rand's feet, back in the sixties. Said she played the role to the hilt, used to wear a cape in public, smoke her cigarettes in a long holder. He sent me a picture of her once, and she looked like an older version of Dagny Taggart, which is not a surprise. She based the character on herself.

Me, I went the other way and became a hippie. Before I did, I read all the books and manifestos, subscribed to the newsletters, and wrote poetry extolling individualism and rational self-interest and making altruists heinous villains ...

The two best known works in the canon were The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and I read and re-read them. Such is the faith of a no-faith-allowed true believer that I was able to do that, since the prose in both books is, at best, turgid, and the characters less realistic than Tinkerbelle ...

Some years back, Rand's -- born Alisa Rosenbaum, by the way -- best known senior students, Nathaniel Branden (Nathaniel Blumenthal) and his ex-wife Barbara Branden (nee Weidman) -- wrote their own autobiographies, and all of the unhappy goings-on behind the scenes revealed a somewhat irrational version of Peyton Place. Who was sleeping with whom, and who was jealous and blew right past reason to bitch-slapping and screams? Very interesting ...

If the creator and two highest-ranked proponents of a philosophy can't make it work on a day-to-day basis, then that's generally a bad sign.

Objectivism is another of those attractions that call to young idealists. And so attractive a notion that the books offering them, bad as they are written, manage to catch a new generation of readers every few year. In Atlas Shrugged, there is a radio speech on economics that runs sixty pages, one of the ultimate examples of telling and not showing. Her lead characters are so heroic you know you'll never measure up; her villains so evil they make Satan look like a choirboy ...

Um. Rand has been gone since 1982, I think, and her legacy, such that it is, still hooks a whole bunch of bright and freshly-scrubbed newbies every year. Most of them don't stay, once they get out of college and into the real world. Like pure Communism, Objectivism is one of those things that sounds fine on paper. But when you try to build a working model, it collapses under it's own weight.

Those you who dabbled in the stuff might find it interesting to read the biographies. I'd start with Nathaniel Brandon's, then Barbara Branden's, to get the flavor from folks who were there. Between his axe and hers, you get a sense of who did what to whom, and why it all fell apart.
Barbara's book became the basis for an HBO movie, The Passion of Ayn Rand, starring Helen Mirren and Eric Stoltz. Won an Emmy™.

The new books, written by folks not part of the movement, might offer a bit more, well, objectivity ...

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I have retained one principle from my study of the material to this day:

Initiation of the use of force without rational justification is the cardinal sin upon which all law should be based.

If I am minding my business and you come over and throw a punch at my nose for no reason other than you feel like it, or you want my wallet, or you are pissed off because you just got fired, that's wrong. That's the primary purpose of law, to protect people from each other, and it starts when somebody points a knife or a gun at somebody without just cause.


James said...

Went through the same thing with Objectivism. I only have one thing to say: THAT is one Hell of a Tattoo!

Christopher Wayne said...

I remember getting into Ayn Rand back when I was 19. Made sense on paper. Used it to chat up a girl once, so it was useful for something.

Anonymous said...

There is a recent fantasy series by Terry Goodkind that features Ayn Randian philosophy. The bad guys Hail from a liberal hell and have come to destroy the rest of the world. Fortunately the Fantasy John Galt is there to save the day! Unfortunately for some reason he is prone to spouting off about his philosophy at at length every other page! Made me wish that the virtues of shutting the hell up was included in there somewhere. I dont mind an author preaching a little but Goodkind really goes overboard with it at some points. Langdon

Dan Gambiera said...

Yes, and you'll notice that Terry Goodkind falls into the classic Randian pattern. The proles won't accept the self-evident superiority of his hero's philosophy and run the world exactly the way he wants.

So he achieves Supreme Ultimate Power and kills everyone who disagrees with him. In this he follows the dictates his Prophet the Blessed Ayn. She warned her followers against engaging in discussions with non-Objectivist thinkers. Eventually, when the True Faith had its final polish Herself would release the statement into the world, and nothing would stand before it.

Sad to say, that never happened.

When you strip it down to the essentials destructive cults all have at least one tenet in common - "Comply or die. Do not listen to unbelievers. Deus Vult." Randroidism's scriptures are true to type.

Anonymous said...

She was easily one of the most unabashedly evil people of the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of Heller's bio now, and intend to read Burns. For all the flaws in Rand's ideology it's fascinating to study someone with such single minded determination. I feel especially sorry for Barbara. If I could go back in time I would have a word with Rand for how badly she treated the "Brandens" (son of "Rand"?) How easily were young intelligent Canadians led? It helped they were second generation immigrants and feeling displaced. Her one mentor Patterson was also coincidentally, Canadian born, but Rand gives her no credit and as was the pattern in her life would break abruptly with her. Patterson questioned the logic of Rand's philosopy, as most serious philosophers do. Perhaps Rand was the one who should have checked her premises. Her logic only works within the romantic universe she created in which all her capitalists are super-heroes and have great integrity. Unfortunately life is not fiction.

There is irony in Ayn Rand's celebration of reason and individualism: She could be irrational ideologue & her young followers readily gave up a sense of self. In many ways their lives would come to reflect the very opposite of the thing that attracted them to Rand in the first place.

Heller points out text book characteristics of cults shared by Ayn Rand's inner circles: forbidden art, music and ideas, humor discouraged, sudden and savage expulsions etc. They were to uphold her as the greatest genius who ever lived, and fall in line with all her likes and dislikes. None of them would reflect the fictional heros of her fictional universe. Greenspan who probably achieved more than others and consequently inflicted more damage in the world has lately broken with objectivism. Likewise, objectivist's are distancing themselves from him, claiming the problem was he just wasn't objectivist enough (which is complete bunk.)

Reading Heller's book the first thing that became clear to me is how Rand's relationship with her mother explains her complete lack of empathy for the maternal spirit. Rand had said given the choice between saving her own baby or herself from a burning building, she would choose herself. She would no doubt been just as happy to see tens of thousands die from lack of health insurance each year.

For a variety of reasons it's hard to not both admire and despise Rand. At this point and given the fallout from her work I tend to despise her more.

It's surprises me so many people (granted many were very young) failed to see the obvious flaws in her philosophy for all the truths, and that it has taken Greenspan forty years to do so. I have to wonder if it were not just the housing collapse. Perhaps he is beginning to feel his mortality. A pity he didn't listen to Brooksley Born when he had the chance.

Rand may have made positive contributions (speaking out against the draft, for women's rights in business, as a motivational force for certain individuals) but in other respects she has done great damage. She actually compared Kennedy to Hitler for bringing in the minimum wage. Sound familiar? Today her intellectual heirs tend to be drug addled, irrational lunatics like Beck and Limbaugh who selectively read passages to their audience, ignore and distort the facts and work to incite the "mob"... and then there is this man who took over from the Brandens, and who makes O'Reilly seem sane and balanced by comparison:

Heller's book is wonderful. It paints a full picture. I look forward to reading "Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns, and plan to check out the film based on Barbara's book.

Worth reading:

The Bitch is Back: GQ: (highly recommended.)

Capitalism's Wicked Witch:

Also: "Genius of the Beast" ←A case for capitalism which may appeal to those who disagree with Ayn Rand's view that all religious faith, Bach and Impressionism are inherently evil.

Steve Perry said...

Anybody who stands up in front of a crowd and offers that they have a better way to go will collect followers. People want assurances, and the Objectives always offered that in spades.

The young are being formed and certain ideas have an almost universal appeal. What is the old saw: If my son was not a Communist at twenty, I would disown him. If he was still a communist at forty, I would disown him.

All that heroic, stand-alone stuff is heady brew for a teenager who doesn't know how the real world works. Once they learn, most of them leave the unworkable stuff behind.

Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand was the "Propagandaminister" of this regime.