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Critic's Notebook: Presidential race shows long reach of Ayn Rand

The Objectivist philosophy she expressed in 'Atlas Shrugged,' 'The Fountainhead' and other writings influences the political discussions of today.

August 22, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Ayn Rand in 1962.
Ayn Rand in 1962. (Associated Press )

"For the next few weeks, there will be no political discussions in America: we have entered the Season of Platitudes," Ayn Rand wrote in October 1962, a month or so before the midterm congressional elections. " … All issues, principles and definitions vanish during an election campaign. They dissolve into a fog of rubber terms that can mean anything to anyone — while the candidates compete for how to be misunderstood in the greatest number of ways by the greatest number of people."

Rand's observation opens a column, "Absurd Chatter of Candidates Reflects Voters," that the novelist and essayist wrote during a six-month stint as a Sunday editorial contributor to the Los Angeles Times. It seems oddly prescient this week, as we gear up for a 2012 Republican convention where her ideas — or at least a version of them — will be hovering in the background.

October 1962 was almost exactly half a century ago, the sort of anniversary our backward-looking culture likes to see through the lens of nostalgia. There is, however, nothing nostalgic about Rand, whose Objectivist philosophy has offered a kind of shadow text for the conservative movement since the Reagan era. Presumptive Republican vice presidential candidatePaul D. Ryanonce gave out copies of her novel "Atlas Shrugged" as Christmas gifts, and though he's begun to distance himself from her in recent days, she remains, unlike most newspaper columnists of 50 years ago, part of the cultural discourse.

In 1991, a Library of Congress/Book-of the-Month Club survey ranked "Atlas Shrugged" second to the Bible in terms of influence; seven years later, "Atlas Shrugged" and Rand's "The Fountainhead" topped a Modern Library reader's poll of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Mary Gaitskill's 1991 novel "Two Girls, Fat and Thin" satirizes a Rand-inspired character named Anna Granite.

Rand has been an object of veneration for both the band Rush and Rush Limbaugh, as well as a fixture at tea party rallies, where participants often hold up signs that play on the opening line of "Atlas Shrugged," declaring, "I am John Galt."

The key to all this is Objectivism, which seeks to build a rationalist frame around an irrational world. It's a theory so defined, so starkly simple, that it is almost childlike — which is, of course, part of its appeal.

In her first column for The Times, dated June 17, 1962, Rand lays out a template for the uninitiated:

"1 — Metaphysics: Objective Reality

2 — Epistomology: Reason

3 — Ethics: Self-interest

4 — Politics: Capitalism"

As for how these concepts manifest, it's easy: There is no reality but this one; it can be explained entirely through rational inquiry; and since self-interest is rational, there is no higher form of actualization than unfettered greed.

What's both beautiful and scary about such a thesis is its lack of ambiguity; this, Rand suggests, is the way it is. For her, the world is black and white, either capitalist or collectivist, either morally compromised or morally pure.

One of her most cogent arguments for this perspective comes in a defense of Mickey Spillane as an avatar of moral literature that she wrote for The Times.

"Detective fiction," she declares, "presents, in simple, primitive essentials, the conflict of good and evil; that is the root of its appeal. Mickey Spillane is a moral absolutist. His characterizations are excellent and drawn in black-and-whites; there are no slippery half-tones, no cowardly evasions, no cynicism — and no forgiveness; there are no doubts about the evil of evil." It's a fascinating statement, for what she catalogs is exactly what makes Spillane — who I've enjoyed on and off — so limited: his lack of nuance, his predictability.

The same could be said for Rand, whose unrelenting sense of certainty has helped her linger through uncertain times. As far back as 1959, she was arguing politics with Mike Wallace on NBC; in 1967, Johnny Carson bumped a "Tonight Show" guest for her.

And then, there's Congressman Ryan, who embraces her stark sense of economic self-determination (one of her favorite pejoratives was "altruism") while ignoring the social implications of her philosophy, which insisted that the government should stay out of not just the boardroom but the bedroom and the war room, as well.

In the end, perhaps, Rand remains influential because she gives us the permission to be selfish, to accept what novelist Steve Erickson, who is blogging about the 2012 election for the American Prospect, calls "a natural and orderly cruelty" as an expression of exalted human good.

"I feel that it is terrible," she told Wallace, "that you see destruction all around you, and that you are moving toward disaster until and unless all those welfare state conceptions have been reversed and rejected. It is precisely these trends that are bringing the world to disaster because we are now moving toward complete collectivism or socialism, a system under which everybody is enslaved to everybody."

Um, no, as it turned out. (Even Rand, at the end of her life, benefited from the social safety net, enrolling in Social Security and Medicare.) But the fact that such ideas still define our political conversation tells us just how long a reach she has.

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