Political Culture: A Liberal Reads Ayn Rand

Written by Books, Current Events, Political Culture

Objectivism is back, baby! Don’t take my word for it – just check out this cover of the libertarian monthly Reason, which offers up a freaky old Audrey Hepburn-meets-the-wicked-witch photo of the philosophy’s founding fussbudget, Ayn Rand. Sales of Rand’s polemical novels apparently are on the rise in recent months – a replay of the uptick her works enjoyed in 1993-94, the last time one of those awful Democrats ascended to the White House and inspired an anti-government panic. This time, Rand’s ideas have come to serve as a rallying cry among tea-party protesters (not to mention their less-rabid conservative brethren) who positively despise the bailouts, loathe the prospect of expanding entitlements, and generally obsess over the need to hold onto whatever small portion of their paychecks the government hasn’t already confiscated. As a result, her tomes The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have returned to the display tables at your local Big Box Boox, and a film version of the latter novel might finally emerge from its half-century of Development Hell, with names such as Brangelina and Charlize Theron currently attached.

It’s understandable, at a moment when the GOP is in such a shambles that citizens self-identify as “conservative” at twice the rate they identify as “Republican,” that increasing numbers of fiscal conservatives are searching frantically for something to say “yes” to even as they scream “no” at everything else. But what most of Rand’s new teabag followers probably fail to recognize, at least to this point, is that objectivism is about much more than taxes and government spending. It’s about each individual’s mandate to be the hero of his own life, to take nothing from anyone else – and, for the most part, to give nothing in return. Objectivists – and yes, I know a few, including some in-laws from whom I will no doubt catch hell just for embarking upon this endeavor – see themselves as the most clear-eyed and realistic of humans, and call their philosophy one of “self-reliance.” Many others, however — including conservatives who agree with Rand’s disdain for government but can’t abide her dismissal of religion, romantic love and other communitarian constructs — tend to view objectivism as little more than unabashed, trumped-up selfishness.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I’ve always counted myself among the latter group, even to the point of thinking up a pithy little insult that I’ve already tossed around once or twice in this space: “Selfishness isn’t a political philosophy, it’s a character flaw.” Still, as my own thoughts on politics have evolved (and then solidified) in the opposite direction, and as I’ve begun pontificating about them on Popdose and elsewhere, I’ve come to regret my lack of first-hand understanding of Rand, her writings, and the ideas that, however antithetical they are to my own, have captured such a devoted following. Indeed, my only exposure to one of her stories was a viewing earlier this decade of the film version of The Fountainhead (1949); a TCM favorite but hardly a classic, it stars Gary Cooper as the strapping architect and monolith of self-reliance Howard Roark, who blathers a lot about staying true to his beliefs and then destroys his own masterwork rather than compromise his creative vision. (Sorry for the spoiler, but when it comes to Rand’s works the plot is largely beside the point anyway.)

My knowledge of Rand has come mostly from secondhand sources, and I must admit that the references that have stuck in my memory are the ones that denigrate her worldview. My favorite such story has to do with her obsession with/fetishization of Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect who clearly inspired her Roark character (though she later denied it). Rand apparently believed that Wright, whose maverick brilliance was accompanied by a healthy disdain for conformism, was the perfect embodiment of her own theories, and she sought for years to “interview” him as she prepared The Fountainhead during the 1930s. He repeatedly rejected her entreaties, however, and was said by some of his biographers to consider her a kook. (Even as Rand was propagating her anti-government ideas during that decade, Wright was an ardent supporter of the New Deal and even flirted with Stalinist collectivism.) The Objectivist Center’s website says they became friends in later years … and I wouldn’t dream of doubting it, though Wright’s biographers don’t back up that part of the story.

Clearly I bring some hefty ideological baggage to my attitudes toward Rand and objectivism – and that’s a problem which, for a variety of reasons, I’d like to solve. As a longtime (and, in a previous life, professional) anti-censorship crusader, I’ve frequently railed against those who would criticize (or even ban) a work of art or thought without having experienced it personally. Now, as conservative political thought has begun to coalesce (at least a little bit) around Rand’s ideas, I’ve realized that if I hope to speak of those ideas with any coherence or credibility, either in favor or opposition, I’m going to have to experience them myself.

Therefore, this holiday season I’ve decided to work my way through Rand’s 1957 magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged – all 1,168 pages of it, in the musty first-edition copy I’ve checked out of the local library – and to blog about it as I go. I’ll treat it the way we used to treat novels back in high school: Every few chapters I’ll pause to take stock of the characters and events, to find their antecedents in political personalities and ideas past and present, and to describe whatever connections and contrasts I can locate between Rand’s theories and my own life and beliefs.

I invite anyone who’s interested to join me in this endeavor, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. (Even if you’ve already read the novel, please feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments, no matter how contrary they are to my own.)

One warning, though: This ain’t gonna be Julie and Julia. I’m not expecting to find myself in Ayn Rand’s words. In fact, while I’m approaching Atlas Shrugged with an open mind, I fully expect to find some of its philosophizing reprehensible, if not downright repugnant – and when I do, I won’t be afraid to say so. Still, I’ll also be looking for points of personal connection with the story, and when I find those I won’t be afraid to discuss them, either.

So pull your old copy off the bookcase, or go buy a new one … or just follow along vicariously as I submerge myself into the depths of objectivist thought during what promises to be a downright maddening holiday season. We begin, as any reading of Atlas Shrugged must, with a simple question: “Who is John Galt?” – and why the hell should I care?