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Ayn Rand Revisited

If I ever even heard of Paul Ryan before last Friday, I didn’t know anything about him. If there’s one thing I do know about, however, it’s the mind of an Ayn Rand disciple. Once upon a time I was one.

Fortunately, my foray into Ayn Rand’s novels and “Objectivism,” her philosophy, didn’t last very long—maybe 2 years—but while it did it was intense, so intense that to this day I vividly remember my state of mind and even the arguments I had because of my new beliefs. There is no such thing as an Ayn Rand follower; there are only Ayn Rand fanatics.

I was 22 and  a voracious reader when I read The Fountainhead. Twenty-two is probably a little old to fall for Rand, but if, like me, you’ve accepted most of what you’ve been taught about America, capitalism, and the like, and you haven’t studied any other systems of belief, including the religion you were born into—then conditions are ripe for a despot with extreme ideas and a persuasive voice to set up house. Most people want something to believe in, and I was no different. I swallowed The Fountainhead whole, including the infamous “rape scene” which I don’t remeember now, but which at the time turned me and all my girlfriends on.  We all wanted a strong, handsome, domineering Howard Roark who erected beautiful erections (he was an architect). As for the movie version of The Fountainhead, sad to say, Gary Cooper was no Howard Roark. Too wimpish.

Wimpy Gary Cooper with Ayn Rand

Rand’s other big novel—and is it ever big: 1200 pages!—was Atlas Shrugged, which I devoured next. I didn’t like it as much as The Fountainhead, and now I know why: Atlas is a polemic, not a novel. Notice that Paul Ryan gave his staff copies of Atlas, not Fountainhead, as Christmas presents (which is a little like giving your wife a blender.) It was in the pages of Atlas that Rand laid out her philosophy piece by piece. She called it Objectivism, and the Objectivist Center grew up around it. Disbanded in the midst of an emotional storm between Rand and her disciple and lover Nathaniel Branden, its closest analogues today are the Ayn Rand Institute and the The Atlas Society. More groups exist worldwide.

An Objectivist believes in rational, linear thinking, with no room for shades of gray. No issue has more than one side: the Randian side. She worships: the individual, selfishness, money, capitalism, America, atheism, self-sufficiency. She despises: socialism, Communism, Russia, religion, god, neediness, altruism, collectivism. Some of the latter doesn’t even exist on Planet Rand: for instance, altruism is a phony cover for selfishness—a good quality—but one that people deny. In fact, most of the values people claim to hold are not just false, but part of some mass delusion. She didn’t support femimism, which came chugging into popular consciousness right behind her. She said no woman should be president because a woman must always have at least one man to look up to.(For a more objective and complete definition of objectivism besides my biased explanations, see Wikipedia.)

Ayn Rand had an answer for every question. As far as I know, she never admitted to being wrong or changed any of her ideas, and she defended her beliefs with the ferocity of a despot. She wore a gold pin in the shape of a dollar sign on her collar. She was, reportedly, as passionate in matters of the heart as the head: Nathaniel Branden, successor to the Objectivist throne, was her lover in a stormy, adulterous but open relationship (both their spouses gave permission). The relationship drama had an effect on the organization; both Rand and Branden wrote publicly and viciously about one another.

My own theory about Ayn Rand is that she went crazy crossing the tundra. She escaped Communist Russia, she claimed, by simply picking herself up by her bootstraps and walking out. One of her minor books, Anthem, describes this escape, if I remember it correctly,* as a long, lonely, frigid journey during which she pondered life and its vicissitudes. Maybe I’m being simplistic here, but I figure that by the time she got to America she was probably demented. She still had a powerful intellect, though, and hid her craziness behind a set of superficial, and toxic ideas. Ayn Rand was the ultimate extremist. And now she’s running for Vice-President.

People who know nothing about Ayn Rand might think, based on the news bytes, that she was an economist. She was not. As far as I know she never studied any one discipline in great depth, but made up everything she preached from her own screwed up head. I suppose once her coterie broadened she learned a lot from the people around her, but she wasn’t all that open to others’ ideas. Her worship of Self meant she worshipped Her Self, without a shred of doubt or fear. Such a person hardly seems human. I’m not saying she wasn’t human; that’s a purely personal remark–like most of what I’ve said here. Ayn Rand was a very personal matter to me. I was as gung-ho as Paul Ryan; good thing I wasn’t in a position of power. One sign of how hard I fell was that my mother, a staunch Republican, was furious with me. She asked indignantly if I, like Rand, wanted to get rid of Social Security. I just stared at her blankly: I hadn’t really thought through the ramifications of Objectivism, of what kind of society we’d have if the dream of self-sufficiency came to pass. Fortunately, within two years the women’s movement came along, with its distinctly leftist tilt, and I canceled my subscription to the Objectivist newsletter.

All these years later I’m a little embarrassed by my Randian stupidity—but I don’t totally regret having jumped on and off the Objectivist bus. My brief foray into Ayn Rand’s ideas served to open up my mind. She taught me to Check your premises. That was one of her slogans, which, when you come down to it, means the same thing as Question Authority. I consider the first step in my journey of consciousness to be the moment I opened The Fountainhead and read

Howard Roark laughed.

*I apologize if I got any details wrong: I just couldn’t bear to go back and re-read Ms. Rand!

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14 responses »

  1. “There is no such thing as an Ayn Rand follower; there are only Ayn Rand fanatics.” By this, I take it you mean that the only people who accept Ayn Rand’s ideas, accept her as an unquestionable authority? *Sigh* Please see: The Proper Intellectual Attitude of an Objectivist

    Considering that you are correct that your description of Objectivism is biased and inaccurate, perhaps you should check your premise that you ever understood the philosophy and its arguments in the first place.

  2. Oh, I understood it quite well. By the way, I didn’t say my descriptions of Objectivism were inaccurate, I said they were biased.

    And you, Sir Sword, have no sense of irony.–MS

  3. Excellent post. I’d send you a blender, but that might make you a moocher.

  4. Billy–Thank you, not just for the post, but for making me laugh!–MS

  5. Good Stuff!

    g

  6. great post. i too was a randian zealot at one point. i thought that being john galt was a good thing. everybody taking care of themselves–eureka! and then i thought about people born poor or sick, and realized she had no compassion of any sort. and her views about women were laughable. thanks for this

    Yes, we’ve all been young once…The other day I saw a video of her being interviewed in the ’50s by Mike Wallace, and she told him she didn’t like the term “randian” or any other derivatives of her name…not so egomaniacal after all? Thanks for commenting.–MS

  7. Oy. There’s much to say. You did say you hadn’t checked things through, so that explains some of it. A few quick points – Rand didn’t claim to have walked out of Russia – she took a train. She did study economists, and noted economists like Ludwig Von Mises and Sylvester Petro (and George Reisman) had a high opinion of her economic wisdom. Also, you ascribe to her a theory she doesn’t hold – known as psychological egoism. It’s not the case she thinks that no one is altruistic – she thinks people are, and usually with bad consequences. She believes a lot of bad people at the top use the people below them in the hierarchy being altruistic in order to gain or keep power – in that sense, Rand is a radical. I’m neither a true believer or a hater – there’s a lot to her, more than folks on either sides see.

  8. Michael–I appreciate you giving me leeway, and you are gentle enough not to inspire anger or even a debate on my part. I confess: I figured she didn’t really walk out of Russia, but I’ll say anything for a good line of prose…not really, but in this case I did the old CYA by saying I hadn’t done research. I wrote about Ayn Rand from memories of long ago, and as I said she remains a very personal issue for me. Thanks for writing. I like the debate as long as I don’t get overheated by it.–MS

  9. A True Believer gave my wife and me a leather-bound copy of Atlas Shrugged as a wedding present. Although that seemed like a slightly weird wedding present, I resolved to read the book. I sat down and started reading. I managed to get about a quarter of the way through the book before I gave up. It was preposterous, bad fiction, describing an undesirable, impractical society. I have no idea how anyone can take it seriously or consider it a practical model of a functional society.

  10. THAT is a terrible wedding present! It shows the self-centeredness of these people, giving you a book they love on your wedding! I congratulate you on seeing right through Rand upon first reading. — MS

  11. What if they’d thought MG and Mrs Geezer would like it?

  12. Sorry, Michael, but even if the book was by someone I liked, a novel just isn’t an appropriate wedding present. Particularly in this case, he was giving them not something he suspected they would “like,” but a philosophical point of view he hoped they would adopt. I cannot know this for sure, but it makes sense: nobody gives someone else Atlas Shrugged for purposes of providing them with entertainment.

    Some kinds of books might make good wedding gifts, such as art books, or the Kama Sutra, or even a great cookbook–but a novel? Politics aside, the choice of Atlas Shrugged was, IMO, a social gaffe.–MS

  13. Your analysis of the situation is, I think, essentially correct. It certainly felt as though the book was an attempt to get me to adopt the Rand view of the world rather than a wedding gift.

    I figured out back in college (in the 1960s, a time full of gurus and saviors of one sort or another) that NOBODY has all the answers. Latching onto somebody and becoming a devoted follower and disciple is naive and foolish. Ayn Rand followers would do well to come up for air and take a hard look at exactly what they are following.

  14. Exactly! During my Ayn Rand mania I tried convincing an older, wiser friend of the rightness of her theories and he told me to go out and study every philosophy, religion, and political system, then come back and tell him Ayn Rand has THE answers.

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