It's Scary -- Ayn Rand's Nutty Ideas Are Being Taken Seriously, Even in Canada
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Ayn Rand was a kind of running joke when I was a kid in the 1950s. I knew about her thanks to the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged and its instant rise on the best-seller list. That in turn drew attention to her philosophy of Objectivism, which promoted selfishness as a virtue and damned altruism as a vice -- a self-evident joke.
Rand also got attention because of her anti-Soviet views. She and her prosperous Russian family had managed to get out of the U.S.S.R. in 1926, and ever after she seemed to have taken the Russian Revolution awfully personally. Nothing the Soviets did could possibly be any good; when they launched Sputnik, the first earth satellite, Rand insisted it had to be a hoax -- and of course the joke was on her.
One or two of my friends loved Atlas Shrugged, which I tried and failed to get into. So for me Rand and Objectivism were just part of the right-wing background noise of the era, along with the John Birch Society and William F. Buckley's National Review. All were mildly scandalous because of their extreme views. But they were trivial compared to the segregationists and mainstream red-baiters who ran the U.S. in those days.
Still, Rand refused to go away. She popped up on TV, she published new books, and her followers published new books about her. Until her death in 1982 she was a presence; Objectivism -- and Objectivists -- survived her, and clearly crossed into Canada. Alberta's Wildrose Party leader leader Danielle Smith and Vancouver's lululemon founder Chip Wilson are among high profile Canadians who pay homage to Rand's teachings today.
The greed beat goes on
Gary Weiss's new book argues that Objectivism has not just survived, but flourished. Its followers have infiltrated the Tea Party movement, which in turn is a force in the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party. Worse yet, he claims, Objectivism long had an agent in place on the commanding heights of the U.S. economy: Alan Greenspan, for decades the head of the Federal Reserve and a dedicated disciple of Ayn Rand for 60 years.
Weiss makes his case with some plausibility. A veteran business journalist, covering what he calls "the greed beat," he knows what's been going on in banking and finance. He writes personally and fluently, describing his efforts to learn not just about Rand but also about her "nation" -- the legions of teenagers, activists, bloggers, bankers, and ordinary folks who accept part or all of her philosophy even when it seems against their own interests. He even describes the enjoyment he gained from re-reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
The Ayn Rand Nation that Weiss encounters comes across as a pretty thoughtful and likeable crowd, with diverse views. For many of them, teenage exposure to her novels was a life-changing experience. Some went on to study her nonfiction articles and books. Most recognize some of the contradictions in Objectivism, though Rand insisted such contradictions are impossible.
"Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction," he quotes her, "check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." Weiss then suggests her own incorrect premise: Objectivism is free of contradictions.
Cult or Soviet parody?
Some of his sources go back to the beginnings of Objectivism, and their recollections portray the movement as a cult -- or even as a kind of parody of Soviet communism. Its early members agreed with her in all things, or were expelled and shunned. (Nathaniel Branden, the number-two Objectivist after Rand herself, was expelled after he stopped sleeping with her.)