My Love Affair with Ayn Rand
Many prominent names in political conservatism today mention novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905–1982) as an influence. This has made her a recurring joke in liberal circles, but it is possible to be on the left and still swoon over Ayn Rand.
I met Ayn through Anthem and we became better acquainted through For the New Intellectual. Then came the days of infatuation as I devoured The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and everything I could get my hands on. The relationship deepened as years passed and I even read a 706-page collection of her letters. Alas, it wasn’t meant to last. Her flaws began to wear on me and we eventually went our separate ways.
I didn’t, however, turn away from Rand’s thought as a whole so much as drop the parts I didn’t like. Something had always bothered me about how far she took selfishness as a virtue, and I was uncomfortable with her belief that she had established premises by which every question could be judged. My worldview has become less foundationalist, but Objectivists are still turning to Atlas Shrugged for a definitive answer to every question. Then there is her devotion to shrinking the social contract to the minimum. Here, we have developed a major disagreement.
This last issue is what many conservatives today love about Ayn Rand. She insisted that the government shouldn’t extend any further than the police and courts at home, plus an army for fending off threats from abroad. When conservatives start talking about all the government departments they would ax, the idea is to decrease government interference in order to increase individual freedom. I’m not sure if Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s views have changed recently now that he is a regular in the political spotlight, but he is a professed fan of Ayn Rand and has stated a desire to abolish the departments of education, energy and commerce. He has also been in favor of getting rid of the income tax, as was Ayn Rand.
Modern day liberalism has a less restricted view of government, but in keeping with the spirit of dialogue in our times, today’s liberals don’t merely criticize Rand’s views on politics and economics. Instead, they throw in deprecatory comments about her literary style, her personal life and her followers. No one ever finishes her books, the characters are one-dimensional, the prose is unreadable, she had a bizarre love life, her thought is only attractive to people who are a little smart but not really (according to comedian Bill Maher), her books are only for adolescents or for adults stuck in adolescence, and so on.
In the current climate, it would seem one must either be a devoted con man like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan or an imbecile to find anything of value in Ayn Rand’s life, philosophy and books.
That’s too bad, because Ayn Rand was one of the last systematic philosophers, so her thought covers a lot of ground. One can reject her support for pea-pod government and still find her critique of Russian Communism to be keen. One can accept her emphasis on individualism without abandoning altruism. One can champion capitalism and free markets but with restrictions on monopolies and cutthroat tactics. One can believe in the heroic potential of humanity without believing each person has a moral obligation to be demigodly after the fashion of Atlas Shrugged characters Dagny Taggart and John Galt. One can reject her claim that humor should never be used in writing except to ridicule evil, while still finding in The Art of Fiction a cousin to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style for its encouragement of brevity, simplicity and clarity.
Consider the fiction through which Rand conveyed her ideas. Anthem is no more objectionable to most people than similar works like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Rush’s classic album 2112, or any number of other imaginative works championing the triumph of the individual spirit over oppressive regimes. Rand’s We the Living is a similar tale, only it’s based on the author’s experiences growing up in early Communist Russia. There is much in these books that Americans of most political stripes can enthusiastically endorse because they are part of the underlying values of all liberal democracies today.
Ayn Rand’s major works The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged hold more that is controversial, but surely one can reject some of the dogma while still appreciating the characters and the stories. I’ve always felt a special affinity for Henry Rearden, the steel magnate in Atlas Shrugged. Despite his extreme competence, he’s vulnerable in ways that many of Rand’s heroes aren’t. Dagny Taggart, while nearer perfection, is also a favorite. When Henry first sees her, she’s standing atop a pile of steel girders, the sun is in her golden hair, and she’s radiating joy and confidence. These are unforgettable heroes of a scale and grandeur that we rarely see in literary fiction today. The recent films were dead before arrival as far as the mainstream media was concerned, but Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler in the first film did an excellent job of playing these lovers’ beauty, composure, strength and mutual respect.
Ayn Rand would spin in her grave to think that any of her ideas could be separated from another, or that her fiction could be separated from her ideas, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. You don’t have to accept or reject a work of art, a system of thought or its creator as a whole, and especially not because someone on television or the internet tells you to for the sake of toeing a political line. You have my permission to be offended when they do.
Hopefully, you’re smarter than that.
(Originally published on Blogger on July 21, 2014.)
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