Terence Corcoran: Ayn Rand — still the most dangerous woman in America
Veteran American libertarian author and activist Jerome Tuccille once wrote a book titled It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Not true in my case. For me it all began with Walt Whitman, the 19th-century mystic whose mesmerizing American poetry helped turn me into a free market individualist. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself…” But that’s another story.
These days, I find what began with Walt Whitman is usually fired up in me now by leftist economists who promote big government, Occupy activists who attack corporate greed and politicians who cravenly exploit class warfare over allegedly expanding inequality.
Which is how this piece began, last December, while I was driving home from the office, the radio tuned to a CBC interview with U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs, prolific best-selling author, renowned statist, Columbia professor, United Nations sideman and an intellectual booster of Occupy Wall Street. For blood-boiling purposes, Mr. Sachs is perfect fuel, and during the CBC interview he delivered all the key words: U.S. politics is corrupt, Republicans and Democrats are complicit, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wall Street, a “veneer of democracy,” a system run by greedy Wall Street thugs and the rich who “don’t follow the law and don’t pay taxes.”
It was pure Occupyism. But then, unprovoked, Mr. Sachs spontaneously veered off the road into an attack on somebody called Ayn Rand. “The Tea Party, the leaders of it, follow Ayn Rand,” he said. “I don’t know how many people here have read this awful woman [much laughter from audience]. Absolutely one of the most pathetic personalities. Really! If you read her biography, she was a sad, sad, lonely, nasty woman, because she preached … antagonism to compassion.”
Mr. Sachs, who was promoting his new book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, said he had broken out into a “cold sweat” after reading a section of Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, a notorious 100-page speech by one of her characters, John Galt.
“It’s so ugly. Ugly, I’m telling you. It says if you as much as give a smile to a poor person, you’re degrading yourself, you’re making yourself a slave of this person. If you give them the pennies that they want, you’re setting the road on the path of destruction.”
Weird, I thought. Why would a world-famous economist, followed by millions, advisor to UN officials and presidents, launch into a personal attack on a novelist who’s been dead more than 30 years by citing one of her novels and paraphrasing the words of one of her characters? How many people have even heard of Ayn Rand? And who the hell cares what one of her characters said in a novel published 60 years ago?
Lots of people, it appears. Ayn Rand may be long dead, but she seems to have been resurrected as the most dangerous woman in America. Judging by the barrage of attacks and references in the media, one can only conclude that Ayn Rand is a pervasive and increasingly powerful force in U.S. politics, possibly on the brink of toppling the prevailing orthodoxies of modern American liberalism.
Media references to Ayn Rand have skyrocketed over the last year, many of them elaborate putdowns. Her name is dropped like a hand grenade into articles and commentaries, as if readers will instantly recognize the menace. Her name has become an explosive device — like Karl Marx’s or Chairman Mao’s —apparently enough to rankle and send shivers down spines.
Major U.S. columnists — Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan — have all dabbled in Rand in the last few months, none favourably. Just last week, in The New Yorker, Steven Coll shoehorned Rand into the context of Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention. The president, said Coll, offered “a powerful response to the dystopian individualism of the Ayn Rand-influenced Republicans and their leader, Paul Ryan, the Vice-Presidential nominee, by invoking ‘citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.’”
Much of the recent Randophobia — including the Sachs attack — came even before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney picked Ryan, a Catholic, as his vice-presidential running mateI’m not going to spend any time reviewing Rand’s ideas. Whether fictional John Galt really said what Jeffrey Sachs describes isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter when it comes to observing the phenomenon of Ayn Rand as leftist/liberal ideological nightmare.
Looking out over the economic and ideological landscape of America today — a land of big government, massive debt, pervasive regulation, fiscal cliffs — there is scant evidence that Ayn Rand has had much influence on the political life of the country. But today Randophobia appears to be reaching new highs. MSNBC’s talk socialist Lawrence O’Donnell recently devoted much of one show to Ayn Rand’s views as a greed worshipper. “That’s right,” said O’Donnell, “Ayn Rand worshipped greed!”
Rand is everywhere, even the sports pages. Commenting on the NHL lockout, a Globe and Mail sports writer exposed the evil heart of the conflict. Some of the NHL owners, wrote Sean Gordon, “subscribe to a stoutly capitalist and virulently anti-union philosophy. That is to say they’re Randians — adherents to the beliefs of the late polemicist and novelist Ayn Rand — or at very least have strong libertarian sympathies.”
In Newsweek last week, the worldly novelist and stand-up intellectual Martin Amis, analyzing the Republican convention in Tampa, went after Ryan and fellow Republican Ron Paul as “anti-abortion libertarians who have managed to distill a few predatory slogans from Ayn Rand’s unreadable novel, Atlas Shrugged (and if young Paul is blessed with another daughter, he will surely christen her Ayn Ryan—to match Ron’s Rand Paul).” Such wit.
Much of the recent Randophobia — including the Sachs attack — came even before Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney picked Ryan, a Catholic, as his vice-presidential running mate. Ryan claimed to be an avid Rand follower, or at least he apparently had been until he became the vice-presidential candidate and busily began distancing himself from the most dangerous woman in America. “If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he said shortly after his selection by Romney — Thomas Aquinas being the 13th century Catholic philosopher who brought reason to the Church’s otherwise irrational worldview. Rand was an atheist, Ryan declared. She was also a hardline pro-choicer, which would not sit well with Ryan the Catholic. Various Catholic organizations also denounced Ryan for having “put the teachings of ultra-capitalist Ayn Rand … before the teachings of Jesus and the Church…”
Not all of Rand’s critics are categorical in their condemnation. Christopher Hitchens, by my reading, had a soft spot for Rand, a fellow atheistVillage Voice columnist Victoria Bekiempis immediately attacked Paul Ryan’s Randian apostasy and his quick retreat into the arms of Aquinas. “Of course, this is complete bullshit. He hasn’t abandoned his interpretation of Rand’s economic policies. More importantly, though, there’s no way Ryan could read Aquinas — and adhere to his beliefs — without lying to himself and/or doing some serious mental gymnastics. And that’s because Aquinas would have f—— hated Ryan’s capitalism.”
Possibly, although it’s doubtful Aquinas would have put it that way. In any case, Rand (who was herself a fan of Aquinas up to a point) would also likely have hated Ryan’s version of capitalism. She certainly had no time for conservatism, whose unprincipled power seeking she saw as more dangerous than liberalism. At least liberals stood for something. “Today ‘conservatives’ are futile, impotent and, culturally, dead,” she once wrote. “They have nothing to offer and can achieve nothing. They can only help to destroy intellectual standards, to disintegrate thought, to discredit capitalism, and to accelerate this country’s uncontested collapse into despair and dictatorship.”
Not all of Rand’s critics are categorical in their condemnation. Christopher Hitchens, by my reading, had a soft spot for Rand, a fellow atheist. He did call her novels “transcendentally awful,” and in a 2008 column, he said that Rand and Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Science founder, were “two of the battiest females every to have infested the American scene.” But he also, in a 2009 lecture, said he has “some respect” for one of Rand’s non-fiction works, The Virtue of Selfishness, even though he said he doubted there was “any need for essays advocating selfishness among human beings,” since “some things require no further reinforcement.”
In New York magazine’s fall preview issue a few weeks ago, the back-of-the-book featurette called “The Approval Matrix” placed a reference to Rand in the “highbrow despicable” quadrant. “Are we really going to spend the next three months talking about Ayn Rand?”
Could be. On Tuesday this week, the Ayn Rand Institute in Los Angeles launched a new book that could spell continuing election-year trouble for liberals and conservatives. Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, written by Institute executive Yaron Brook and associate Don Watkins, is a smooth, readable and easy-to-digest summary of Randian theory plugged into current political and economic developments. This is no John Galt marathon of dense theory in a fictional setting. Section headings alone will cause heads to explode left and right: The Right’s Crusade for Big Government; The 2008 Housing Meltdown: The Crisis That Government Built; Rethinking Selfishness; The Immoral Entitlement State; Why Only Rational Selfishness Will Do; You Are Not Your Brother’s Health Care Provider.
Steve Forbes, in a blurb for the new book, said Free Market Revolution will raise the ire of every statist, socialist and crony capitalist. Rand understood — as do the authors of this too timely book — that free markets are, indeed, moral while Big Government is manifestly not.”
On Thursday, in New York, the Ayn Rand Institute held a fundraiser at the St. Regis Hotel under the banner: The Atlas Shrugged Revolution. Speakers included Brook, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore, and John Allison, a member of the board of the Rand Institute.
It’s hard to tell today who has more to gain or lose from the seeming resurrection of Ayn Rand as an ideological enemy of the statistsRand’s supporters appear to be moving in on Washington’s Cato Institute, a libertarian bastion long headed by Ed Crane but now presided over by John Allison, the Ayn Rand Institute board member. Allison, a former banker from North Carolina, with funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, themselves characters out of Occupy/liberal nightmares, has said he aims to reshape Cato along Randian lines.
This is war. Rand condemned liberals and conservatives, but had even stronger views about libertarians. In a 2009 biography of Rand, author Jennifer Burns records that during Rand’s public speeches, she called libertarians “scum,” “intellectual cranks” and “plagiarists.”
It’s hard to tell today who has more to gain or lose from the seeming resurrection of Ayn Rand as an ideological enemy of the statists. She had no time for most other worldviews, right, left or libertarian. She would have fought the Cato Institute, she would have rejected the Tea Party movement, and she would have sought to demolish the Jeffrey Sachs of the world.
Whether all the recent attacks are signs of a real surge in Ayn Rand and her radical outlook I cannot tell. She’s still in the news, particularly in the wake of Mitt Romney’s video reference to the 47% of Americans who pay no tax and receive government funds. Critics quickly pounced, accusing Romney of talking about “moochers,” a Randian phrase. On Wednesday, Open Salon blogger and former Republican speechwriter Ted Frier said he thought Romney had exposed his “inner Ayn Rand” and that she was “enjoying a comeback in plutocratic circles.”
If Ayn Rand were really making a comeback, nobody would be safe. And everybody seems to know it.