The worst of all crimes is the acceptance of the opinions of others.
—Ayn Rand, as quoted in Goddess Of The Market – Ayn Rand And The American Right by Jennifer Burns
Ultimately, it was the controversies surrounding my third book, Trailing Jesus which helped drive its modest sales, but none of it has consistently equaled the response to what some labeled my brazen inclusion in a list of like-minded philosophers of the historical Jesus a quote by world-class atheist, Ayn Rand. To which I often retorted that if Jesus and Ayn had ever spent any time together in a locked room, neither could decide which of them was indeed God. And in my estimation after six years of research, beyond Friedrich Nietzsche, Rand’s first and lasting philosophical hero, only the icon of Christianity could equal Rand’s unyielding defense of the individual as moral arbiter of his/her fate. And just as the figure and scope of a Jesus can be all things to all people, so thus is the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
It is hard to find anyone, whether philosopher, psychologist or pop culture icon, which has filled more socio-political voids than Ayn Rand. Her wildly consumed novels have spawned millions of dedicated followers, sparked historic movements, and launched varied institutions, remaining as influential today as any of their contemporaries. And now that many of these same contemporaries, both disciples and detractors, begin to slip into history, and her legend grows with queer abandon, a renaissance in Rand’s pristine moral imperative of hallowed selfishness over evil altruism dawns a new age in America’s lasting ideological battle; the progressive collective rationality versus rugged American free-market individualism.
To that end, talk show hosts, columnists, protestors and political pundits routinely resurrect the nearly eighty year-old writings, teachings, and rants of Rand to plug their personal ideals, however disparate. From TEA Party enthusiasts to Don’t Tread On Me fanatics, Right Wing showman and fiscally conservative economists, there is always plenty of the Randian spirit readily available to be co-opted. Never has this been more evident than in the fallout of today’s crumbling economic implosion born of rapacious malfeasance and individual irresponsibility leading to the inevitable expansion of federal regulation and government intervention.
Nearly thirty years after her death, Rand strikes a figure that can remarkably embody the basic tenets of anarchy while also espousing a strong sense of patriotic duty – a dedication to personal responsibility in the perpetuation of capitalist ideals. And once again, as the new century hits its second decade and the winds of change shift dramatically, the timing of author, Jennifer Burns’s biography, Goddess Of The Market – Ayn Rand And The American Right is almost eerie.
“There is an infinite attraction to Rand and her philosophy because it is so unattainable,” Ms. Burns told me this week. “She spent a lifetime trying to create individualists out of human beings, who are social creatures at base, but because we are social creatures we struggle against our destinies and wish we could be what one reviewer said of Howard Roark (Rand’s practical idealist hero from The Fountainhead), that he is the superman – completely free, independent without a care for others, thus never feeling pain or disappointment, super-human.”
Rand’s superhero protagonists, specifically in her spectacularly popular novels, her relentlessly structured essays and the cult of her personal philosophy called Objectivism, wherein the mystical Disneyification of an entire generation is obliterated in a torrent of cold reasoning and self-reliant myopia, speak to the vastness of the American schizophrenia; a relentless pursuit of individual gratification basked in a noble reach to empower the whole.
Goddess Of The Market is the first book authored by a non-Randian disciple nor an ardent Objectivist, who was not only allowed access to Rand’s personal papers but places this schizophrenia into modern context.
“Rand is unique because she has clarified what is really a Christian theme of a charitable redistribution of wealth as immoral,” Burns says. “She’s able to dramatically strengthen the argument against the expanse of the state over the individual in less practical and more emotional terms.”
Like the America Rand envisioned and was to forever worship as the triumph of science and progress over the mystical imprisonment of a Czarist and later a Communist Russia, her personal contradictions (Burns describes her as tempestuous and moody and in her book Rand appears spiteful, vengeful and randomly petty) were ignored for the greater “truth” in the glorious “pursuit of happiness”.
“The grand paradox that powered Rand’s career is the offshoot of a philosophical system she constructed as an absolute truth, which is if one was to reason properly one would come to a universal conclusion, “ Burns notes. “Yet the people most strongly attracted to the message of individualism aren’t as strongly developed as individuals and perhaps the most susceptible to this type of orthodoxy.”
This explains The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as key contributors to youthful literary exuberance, as Kerouac’s On The Road or Plath’s The Bell Jar seems to resonate among the impressionable.
“I always laugh when people pass Rand off as some kind of joke, like ‘Only teenagers read her’, Burns says. “Yeah, teenagers do come to her, and since that is when many of us form our beliefs for a lifetime, I think that’s pretty important.”
At the root of Rand’s influence and orthodoxy are the harsh realities of Objectivism. Even for the most zealous supporters, no matter how loyal, all are not included. Those not worthy of its distinctions are left without the slightest empathy. The “blessed” ones are most cherished for their art of invention, artistic brilliance, ingenuity and progress and may then reap the rightful rewards. Unlike the religious parameters of those “chosen” or “saved” in a specific faith gaining ultimate spiritual emancipation, Rand’s exalted few are merited by action, production and success.
However, unflinching philosophical orthodoxy aside, Rand is most potent as a political juggernaut, with pen and verbal assault, which she deftly used during her lifetime and left behind in her volumes of work. They were rendered as body blows to both the modern Conservative movement (Building a Christian Right edict in the war against Communism, William F. Buckley spent decades trying to discredit Rand’s hard-line materialism and staunch atheism) and her favorite whipping post, Liberalism.
From the days of the New Deal to the Great Society, Rand stood in firm opposition of any government intervention for any purpose, including “just” foreign wars and the conscription that accompanied them. And although appalled by Southern racism, she supported Barry Goldwater’s stance for state rights and against a Civil Rights bill. Moreover, Rand, while being a beacon for the rights of women and anti-censorship, in which she fought both battles to the teeth during her professional life, thought feminism asinine while also managing to support abortion and wrote vehement screeds against Hollywood propaganda for the Left, going as far as speaking on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the end, though, it is Rand’s insistence, almost a passionate demand for the individual over almost any collective that places her neatly in the messiah line-up. Libertarians, anarchists and anti-government fist-pumpers and sign-wavers look to her as their shining example, perhaps today more than ever.
“Objectivism, whether you agree with it or not, is part of the American intellectual experience,” Burns concludes. “Ayn Rand has had a profound impact on so many Americans, defining how they think about capitalism, markets, and the question of morality.”
In the weirdest of evolutions, the idea of trusting the human intellect and its lust for greed and expanding the limits of true freedom has led to some of the most ignominious failures of this democracy, as has its subsequent remedy, an expanding government clampdown, whether Trust Busters, The New Deal or The Big Bank Bailout. It speaks ultimately of Rand’s fatal flaw – the fatal flaw in the human spirit, to be our own worst enemy and as Twain once coined, getting the government “of the people and by the people” we deserve.
As Goddess Of The Market so intriguingly points out, Rand stands as a figure of absolute truth against so many American contradictions, not the least of which is what the new Right today must face if it is to gain a foothold to power again, a sense that at the core of the true American spirit lies the dollar sign and not the crucifix.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella. His work is archived on jamescampion.com.