The morning lecture on "Ayn Rand: An Illustrated life," has just ended, and the line for free coffee here at the Ayn Rand Centenary celebration in Costa Mesa is remarkably orderly. No pushing. No shoving. Most significant of all, no cutting in. For a three-day event that began with a lecture on "The Virtue of Selfishness," score one for altruism.
They have gathered, these mostly middle-aged men and women, to talk of revolution, of upending an American culture that values altruism and disparages self-interest. In a nation whose founding document begins with "We, the people," not "We, the individuals," the revolution won't happen soon, they agree. Nor will it be violent. Rather, it will come through the slow spread of the word -- Rand's novels, which lay out her philosophy of objectivism.
This revolution will be proselytized.
"I'm trying to do my part, to plant a seed," says objectivist Maryann Grau, 62, of Pasadena, sipping coffee from a cup-and-saucer set as fellow Rand enthusiasts browse tables selling books, tapes and T-shirts. "If you build a rational society, everyone doesn't have to understand it, because if it exists, they will prosper, and people will be happy. It doesn't require mass acceptance of a political philosophy."
Rand's 100th birthday passed Wednesday with scattered celebrations around the country, reflecting the author-philosopher's unusual legacy and the outsider status of her followers, known disciple-like as Randians. There was a seminar at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and an objectivist dinner party in New York City. The most ambitious of the celebrations was this gathering at a Westin hotel, sponsored by the Irvine-based Ayn Rand Institute, whose mission, according to executive director Yaron Brook, is to "bring her ideas to every part of the culture, until we can claim victory."
Brook, a former finance professor, believes the tide is beginning to turn their way. Sales of Rand's books are stronger than ever, objectivist academics are landing college jobs, and lectures like this sometimes draw upward of 500 people.
On the political front, objectivists dismiss President Bush and the current regime of conservatives as too compassionate but approve of Bush's "ownership society" concept -- though they believe Social Security should be dismantled, not just reformed. And the proposed 2006 budget Bush sends to Congress today calls for billions of dollars in cuts from the kinds of government programs objectivists find immoral -- farm subsidies, food stamps, housing and Medicaid.
But respect? Well, you can't have everything.
"They call it a cult, they call it silly," Bill Stoops, a 54-year-old aerospace program manager from Solana Beach, says of the movement's critics. "But I think it's reason-based. You either know things, or you don't."
Views of a philosophy
Rand once described her philosophy as the "concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life." Followers say they are drawn to a clear worldview based on logic, observation and the primacy of the individual.
But when mainstream philosophers begin peeling away objectivism's arguments, they find little more than a constructed defense of narcissism. They view it as an adolescent philosophy -- like a teenager trying to figure out his or her place in the world, an inquiry that begins and ends with self.
"It's not taken very seriously -- it's considered to be sort of a flat-earth type of thing," says John McCumber, a UCLA philosopher and professor of Germanic languages. "My own personal problem is that selfish interest is taken to be the only moral consideration."
Objectivism -- the polar opposite of socialism -- would unravel civilizations built on a premise of communal good. Government's only purpose would be the physical protection of its citizens, and it would not have the authority to "coerce" taxes, depending, like Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, "on the kindness of strangers."
"It's a philosophy of social gridlock," McCumber believes. "It's ultimately begging too many questions for philosophers to take seriously.... It's not a recipe for a happy and satisfying life, being out for yourself, above all."
But followers aren't necessarily looking for Rand to answer the same questions philosophers pose. Stoops says Rand's insistence on reason as the foundation for a worldview matches his desire to understand the knowable.
"I don't mind saying I don't know something -- I don't need a belief system" like religion, Stoops says, taking a break during the 90-minute opening-night lecture. "My dad introduced me to Ayn Rand books in high school. We didn't talk about it in any kind of academic way. Just ... 'This makes sense.' "