Monday, December 27, 2010


Update: I wrote the following piece in 2010. It is relevant once again in 2012 because Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice-president, has been an avowed disciple of Ayn Rand's economic theories.

Ayn Rand was a third-rate novelist pretending to be a first-rate philosopher. She wrote Harlequin Romances for intellectually pretentious adolescent boys. I know. I was one of those boys.
      By the time I was 17, I had read all of Rand's major works: The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, and Anthem. I was put on to them by Eleanor Amidon, a bright, rebellious high school classmate on whom I had a powerful crush. (To this day, Eleanor is one of only two females I know who have liked the works of Ayn Rand. The other is an English-professor friend. I'm sure there are others; I just haven't met them.) As a teenager, I enjoyed Rand's books. They were simple and a little sexy, with just enough harebrained economics and philosophy thrown in to make me think I wasn't wasting my time. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are also very long (the latter over 1,000 pages), which made them seem both literally and intellectually weighty.
      But even at the age of 17, I knew that Rand was a philosophical charlatan. More on that in a minute.
      Rand was born in 1905 and died in 1982. So why am I bothering to write about a mediocre writer who died 28 years ago? Because Rand still wields influence in high places. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and arguably the man whose Rand-inspired belief in so-called "free markets" was most responsible for the failures of the American economic system that led to the recent Great Recession, was once a member of Rand's inner circle. The neocon-influencing Cato Institute was founded largely on Ayn Rand's principles, and Glenn Beck devotes whole segments on Fox to singing her praises. Tea Party favorites Ron Paul, and his son Rand, recently elected to Congress, are huge admirers of Ayn Rand; indeed, Tea Party meetings have been known to begin with readings from Atlas Shrugged. (Rand Paul has even gone on YouTube to dispel hope-based rumors that he was named for Ayn Rand, insisting, however, that he does love her work.) The entire neoconservative movement owes a debt to Rand.
     Given all that, it is appropriate to put Ayn Rand in her place. That is, back in the grave.
     Let us consider Ayn Rand's view of the world, as reflected in her novels. She believed that money was the measure of a man (and a woman, though she clearly preferred male heroes). In Ayn Rand's world, all handsome, strong, brilliant people are rich, and all rich people are handsome, strong, and brilliant. In her world, Bill Gates would look like Gregory Peck, and Warren Buffet would have Paul Newman's blue eyes. In her world, Paris Hilton would have the snap and strength of Katharine Hepburn.
     In Rand's world, if you are poor, then you must be lazy, stupid, or weak, and if you are lazy, stupid, or weak, you will be poor, and who cares? In her world, laissez faire capitalism is the only True Way and always results in the talented being rewarded. In her world, the strong and the beautiful meet and make love, but the worthiest woman, though gorgeous, is never soft, and the worthiest man, though intelligent, is never effete. To win a woman in her world, a man has to "take" her and "seize" her. Love-making in her world closely resembles rape. The prose describing these moments is hilariously bad: "They stopped and looked at each other. She knew, only when he did it, that she had known he would. He seized her, she felt her lips [sic] in his mouth, felt her arms grasping him in violent answer, and she knew for the first time how much she had wanted him to do it." (Atlas Shrugged, p. 106.)
     In Rand's world, the hero-capitalists are geniuses not just at making money, but at everything. They are mathematical geniuses and philosophical geniuses, appearing as precocious teenagers in college classrooms and stumping the professors at their own game. The capitalist heroes are even geniuses at sports. When South American billionaire heart throb Francisco D'Anconia (tall, dark, sculpted, of the copper D'Anconias) comes to the U.S., he spends fifteen minutes watching his first baseball game, then steps up to the plate and hits a home run "over a line of oak trees" in his first at-bat (Atlas Shrugged, p. 92). I love the oak trees. That's typical over-the-top Rand. (To be fair, I must say that my English-professor friend who likes Rand defends such passages as acceptable literary hyperbole. I say it's the purplest kind of phony prose.)
      Let me repeat: I liked Ayn Rand's books when I was an adolescent, back in the Sixties. Her comic-book superheroes appealed to me, and of course there was the sex (almost always outside of marriage--ooh la la). But even at the time, I knew she was a fool when it came to the way laissez-faire capitalism worked and the way people behaved in it. The telling issue for me was workers' unions. Rand hated them. Her logic about unions went like this: 1) Unions harbor some workers who are lazy and shiftless. 2) Therefore all unions are evil. 3) Therefore anyone who joins a union is lazy, shiftless, and evil. In her books, all union members are weak, stupid, and good for nothing, or else they are the ignorant dupes of union leaders who are simply exploiting them for their own purposes. To refute this view of the world in 1962, all I had to do was look across the kitchen table each night at my own father, who was a union activist for the Communication Workers of America and was the hardest-working man I knew, and one of the smartest and nicest. In the McCarthyite 1950s, he received anonymous notes at work from people calling him a "red" and a "commie" for his union work. No doubt some of these notes came from Ayn Rand disciples; Rand was a notorious commie-hater. (She had been born, Alisa Rosenbaum, in pre-revolutionary Russia.) In Rand's utopian capitalist world, no such thing as a company store or scrip or a sweat shop had ever existed. The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Carnegies were, in her world, saints.
       It was from Rand's depiction of union members that I learned what a "straw man" argument is--a lesson that has served me well ever since. In a "straw man" argument, rather than trying to deal with your opponent's strongest positions, you deal only with his weakest ones, which you usually put in the form of an extreme weak example. Thus, Rand created union members who were smarmy, scrawny, hypocritical, and indolent; they were easier to knock down than someone like my father. The most famous example of the straw man was the "welfare mother driving a Cadillac" imagined by Ronald Reagan's Rand-influenced speechwriters. That woman never existed, as it turns out, but she was easier to argue against than the real poor. Ayn Rand was a past-master of the straw man argument. As I said, the neoconservative movement owes much to her.
      Having said all this, I must also say that I am glad I read the works of Ayn Rand when I did, and I would still recommend them to young people today. In fact, I found much in her philosophy to agree with: her emphasis on the importance of personal pride, on objective reason as opposed to religious faith, on the need to live your life according to your own principles, not simply to please others.
      But please, let us not use the cheap economic pronouncements of a third-rate novelist as the basis for national policy.


  1. I really enjoyed this post! One of the classes I am taking this fall is on Ayn Rand. We will be reading Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, among others. Any suggestions?

  2. Sally: Those two big novels are the main thing. *We the Living* and *Anthem* are quick and easy, but they're throwaways. I'll be interested to hear how your class discussion goes. I have no problem with college students reading Rand, as long as they do so with a jaundiced eye. Good luck!

  3. I'll keep you posted! Professor Knapp is a wonderful professor, so I'm sure it will be interesting! Thanks for the wonderful blogs. I enjoy reading them!

  4. Hi, Sally. I didn't realize it was Shoshanna's class you were talking about! She's the professor I mentioned who defends Rand. I sent her a copy of this blog post (which originally appeared in The Memphis Flyer, an alternative newspaper) several years ago. We had a good hallway debate about it. Maybe you can ask her if she can have the class read what I said. It could generate an interesting class discussion. I understand Shoshanna is a terrific teacher. She's one of the world's leading experts on Ayn Rand. You're lucky to be taking the class. Thanks for liking the blog posts.

  5. That debate would have been interesting to hear!I'll mention it. She is definitely one of the best. I thoroughly enjoy her classes. She is very knowledgeable and presents her material in an engaging way. I would like to have her for the rest of the classes I need. She is also teaching a class called New Women Fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries. We will be studying Olive Schreiner, Victoria Cross, Mona Caird, Sarah Grand, George Egerton, and Mary MacLane. I can't wait for this class. It should be very entertaining!

  6. You are completely wrong about Rand and unions, for instance. She spoke positively of them in the 1974 Edwin Newman interview (it's available online), and she has a positive labor union in "Atlas" - the Rearden Mills union. She did not like government involvement in unions - same as in business.

    Hurray for Mary MacLane, Sally. :)