People always expect that someone as socially liberal (radical, really) as myself will be ashamed of the passion I had for Ayn Rand in my late teens and early twenties. Often, I am asked questions aimed at uncovering my youthful folly. So I would like to say that I’m not ashamed of my interest in Ayn Rand, or the fact that I’ve read all of her books, or that I was a registered Libertarian for a number of years. Mind you, I took heat at 18, 20 and 21 for belonging to a third party, because it’s a two party system and if you’re realistic, you should belong to one of those parties and vote within them whether or not you believe in what they stand for. I’m quoting, of course, my ex-girlfriend the train wreck, who was a Republican and voted for Reagan twice. Committed to being in the closet, she found no contradictions in voting for a homophobe who ended up being responsible for not meeting the demands of the epidemic that AIDS very early on showed signs of becoming.
Enough on my thirty year resentment of her (really, I made the mistake of staying with her for more than half a minute…and she was brilliantly talented, beautiful, charming and funny…I should get over this).
And back to Ayn Rand. The reason I’m on Ayn Rand today is that my partner watched a PBS special on conservative politics which contained Paul Ryan’s quotations of Ayn Rand along with clips from the movie Atlas Shrugged, which I am very glad I did not see. There were also clips of interviews with Ayn Rand, all about her philosophical and political views, which include no taxes, no social programs, the privatizing of things like the post office and the building of roads. Ayn Rand’s capitalist views were extreme, but the PBS special and the attacks on her philosophy were biased and inaccurate. The Tea Party’s use of her philosophy is also partial and inaccurate. Like, they just don’t get Ayn Rand!
First of all, Ayn Rand’s views–unashamedly both extreme and elitist–weren’t based on a passion for privilege, which is how they’re being interpreted. Ayn Rand was passionate about freedom–individual and personal freedom. She believed that communism and socialism created totalitarian states in which individual freedom, creativity and innovation were squashed, and that innovators within such societies destroyed themselves out of despair. Her first novel, We the Living, is about the destruction of such people, and contains a haunting despair and grief for lives lost. It is extremely critical of her native country and its treatment of artists.
The Fountainhead reveals a disillusion with the United States, in which conformity and pandering to the masses (she was an elitist, remember) replace a totalitarian government. Howard Rourke, the protagonist, based to some extent on Frank Lloyd Wright, is an innovative architect who no one will hire because he’s not just regurgitating ideas of the past. In The Fountainhead, Rand lays out an Abraham Maslow-like peak experience, found only in solitude, of life as ecstasy. These experiences, she explains, come only outside the common pool of belief and conformity.
Atlas Shrugged is about the rich, but it is about the innovative rich, whose inventions do not belong to their creators. Her elitism was the elitism of the brilliant and talented, of the wealthy only if they also fell into that category. Her love of capitalism came from the belief that in capitalism only ability is king.
And okay, elitism is elitism. Ayn Rand’s views are focused on people like herself–brilliant, driven, non-conformist innovators. She doesn’t seem able to look at history and the pre-union industrial leaders who exploited and underpaid their employees, locked them in factories which were unsafe, sent them underground in unsafe conditions, and then murdered the early labor organizers who tried to help them. Corporations and their owners were dominated by greed at all costs, leading to inhumanity and power at all costs . Ayn Rand seemed incapable of incorporating these facts into her understanding. She saw only that the government controlled the lives of individuals and that this should be stopped.
So, yes, like the Tea Party, she would abolish taxes on the rich. She’d also abolish taxes on everyone else. And like the Tea Party, she’d get rid of all social programs. However, she’d also want big money out of government if that impeded freedom (although she might not want it out if she saw legislation and more government as the only way of making that happen), the end of special interests (if those special interests created legislation), individual freedom for minorities…an end of legislating all person freedoms.
The Libertarian party has long stood for social freedoms like gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose…because that party embodies Rand’s values and was started by her followers (she created a salon that eventually became pretty cultish, but included very prestigious economists, psychologists and artists). So, PBS got her wrong. And the Tea Party is misinterpreting her as well.
I mean, give the woman a break. She grew up under extreme oppression and wanted to end government control because she saw what it could do. I found her when I was living in an all-Catholic suburb, going to an all-Catholic girls school, and under the control of very oppressive parents. I saw, in her work, a worship of personal freedom and individual integrity. I also hated that she made Rourke’s rape of Dominique erotic and positive, and at 17, this confused me, because how could you worship freedom and make personal violation not only okay, but the basis for connection?
I have to say that in spite of my reservations, at 19 I went and did my first psychological intensive with Nathaniel Brandon, who was her primary acolyte for many years, and who took the basic premise of his psychological approach from her philosophy. He was an arrogant, homophobic, brilliant jerk. He believed, though, that self-esteem came from a commitment to reality at all costs, and that if you lived with illusion and denial, your ability to esteem yourself would be limited, because only accurate perception, congruent with reality, made you able to survive in the world. (He needed to read some Buddhism and meditate, obviously.) Here’s the thing–Brandon had a point. A radical point–commitment to reality, to non-conformity, to not giving up your personal vision unless you were genuinely convinced it needed changing is radical. There’s no compromise, no people-pleasing, no codependence. (For what it’s worth, I stood up and confronted him on being personally shaming to members of the weekend in front of 200 people when I was 21. And get this, he told his followers to shut up so he could listen and think about what I said. Not all bad.) (He also said, when Ayn Rand died, that she openly admitted she didn’t get psychology, and that this was her downfall–she couldn’t see herself.)
The point of all this is simple–if you’re going to quote a philosophy that is based in a passion for individual freedom, get it right! Ayn Rand’s elitism was an elitism of the talented, the brilliant and the original (as long as you thought she was the best of all those things, I understand from reading essays by her immediate circle), not an elitism of the Republican rich.
I hesitate making this correction, in case some Tea Party member reads it and actually makes a more Libertarian argument that might be relevant to people’s lives. Because right now, the Tea Party is so irrelevant. Which is a very good thing.
I am not ashamed of loving Ayn Rand’s work, of falling in love with her passion for freedom and integrity, for sharing her fears of big government (and now, big government run by the special interests of corporations). I have grown past her understanding of the world, which was over-simplified and rigid, but I still remember what it was to pick up The Fountainhead and feel less alone…because at 17 I was talented, smart and unable to conform, and she told me this didn’t make me strange, or worthy of being bullied, but instead something remarkable. I still feel enough of that passion, in spite of her many flaws, to write this and say, yes, she was an elitist, shaped by a history and psychology she would never admit, she created a cult-like following, and could bear no real challenge to her ideas. But she was not for privilege at all costs. It’s unfortunate that she thought all the rich were like Steve Jobs–who would be a real hero in her philosophy, compared to special interests who look for government favors because they can’t truly compete in the marketplace she revered.
I’m not a Libertarian any more and haven’t been for a couple decades at least. I’m an Independent. I still can’t conform, and I still love freedom and integrity, and I think the Tea Party sucks, but occasionally a Republican can have a good idea because people everywhere are capable of independent thought, just as we are all capable of being lemmings following one leader or another.
For what it’s worth.
PS–I’m including a comment from FB that I think is relevant and important…which is, how can someone who stood for freedom have testified for HUAC? I didn’t know until today that Rand testified, and it’s terrible and disappointing that she did. But her testimony reveals her experience with and terror of Communism (and propaganda) and tells a lot about her. Below are the comments from FB. Here is the link to Rand’s HUAC testimony: http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/texts/huac.html.