We (Patheos Catholic bloggers) have been instructed to feature older material in order to better enjoy Christmas and the end of the year, since fewer people read weblogs this time of year, which is good news. In reading through old items for a different purpose, I found five on Ayn Rand that seemed worth repeating, given how many supposedly conservative people have become disciples of hers.
Any Rand’s Fiction
Two quotes posted by friends on Facebook:
Douglas Minson points to a short article giving Flannery O’Connor’s opinion of Miss Rand’s fiction:
I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.
And from Patrick Deneen, a quote from Miss Rand herself:
No one will hate this book [Atlas Shrugged] as much as the Catholic Church. Not even the Communists.
He remarks: “the most sensible thing she ever said.” A commenter adds to this:
There are two novels that can transform a bookish fourteen year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.” − Raj Patel
Ayn Rand the Child
Ayn Rand was an awful, awful human being. Had she not become a guru, she would have had no friends, or been the kind of person no one likes who still accumulates a few admiring followers, whom she would banish for the slightest deviation from total devotion — a particularly mean Mean Girl. But you never know why someone is as he is and if with the same experiences you would have done as badly or worse.
I’ve been reading a book called Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul by a journalist named Gary Weiss. It’s unevenly written, and though a lefty Weiss has a disturbing sympathy with some of Rand’s ideas, but it’s still a helpful description of the movement she created. But to the point.
Weiss relays stories from her followers and former followers, and from them and others I’ve read Rand seems like a very frightened little girl and one who learned to deal with her fear with anger. Weiss relays a story from one of Rand’s earlier disciples, named Iris, who was first introduced as someone who’d helped design ads for a Randian enterprise.
Rand said, “Tell me how much you like the ads.” Iris felt that “here’s my chance to tell her something she didn’t know.’ So she began to tell Rand about how she designed the ads. “I said, ‘You figure out what is the most important thing for people to know, and you make that largest’.’”
Iris noticed that Rand’s eyes widened in anger. She didn’t know what she said that teed her off. Ed Nash [her Randian boyfriend] said, “Oh, excues me,” and pulled her aside. “I think I could have lived my life and never guessed what made her angry,” said Iris. “Ed said, I said ‘you.’ It was as if I was telling her how she should design the ad. I should have said ‘one.’” Ayn Rand did not like to be told what to do, even when she wasn’t being told what to do.”
There are many stories like this and they all suggest some deep trauma, something that fixed her emotionally as a small child. We don’t know what horrors she may have suffered during her childhood in pre-Revolutionary Russia. It’s something to keep in mind when you think about her life and work.
Ayn Rand’s “To a gas chamber — go!”
Not to pile on poor Miss Rand, but the responses here and on Facebook to Ayn Rand’s Fiction and especially Ayn Rand the Child, my attempt at sympathy for her, have got me to reflecting on her appeal and effect. So:
The title, as many readers will know, refers to Whitaker Chambers’ famous review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, published in National Review at the end of 1957. The publication of “Big Sister Is Watching You” was one of the magazine’s finest moments. Here is the paragraph (subdivided) in which the gas chamber line occurs.
Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.
In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them.
From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture — that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive.
Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.
Chambers also explains why Rand’s ideals lead to dictatorship, among other insights in the review. “Big Sister” is said to have banished Rand from the new conservative movement, though some conservatives, apparently bedazzled or befuddled by her defense of capitalism, defended her. See George Nash’s description in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 for the story. After this controversy, he writes, Rand “remained for most conservatives merely the leader of a sect.”
Paul, Hannity, Beck, & RandApparently Ron Paul, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck are appearing in part three of the movie Atlas Shrugged, because, as the movie’s producer explains, “Most people have a respect for spirituality, maybe even a yearning. There must be room in Objectivism for charity and benevolence.” Which is not Christianity, and isn’t Objectivism either.
Which raises the question, she writes, after explaining just how anti-Christian Randianism is, of “why the sanguine agreement on the part of three outspokenly Christian political players to appear in a film so deeply and totally antithetical to Christian ethics?”
She is absolutely right in asking, as she is in everything else she says in the article. Except for one thing: I don’t think there’s much reason to call either Paul or Hannity “outspokenly Christian political players,” since their Christianity seems to have only the dimmest relation to their politics. (The matter of calling the Mormon Beck a Christian is a separate issue.) You may agree with them, but if you read or watched them without knowing who they were, you would not identify them as religiously-engaged in their politics.
Which pretty much answers her question.
Rand on Abortion (and on the side of evil as usual)
“An embryo has no rights,” declared Ayn Rand, as quoted by William Luse, responding to To a Gas Chamber, Go!. She continues:
Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn). Abortion is a moral right — which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”
Luse offers two other comments of hers he notes should be of interest to conservatives:
“Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason . . . . To embrace existence is to reject all notions of the supernatural and the mystical, including God.”
“In regard to the moral aspects of birth control, the primary right involved is not the ‘right’ of an unborn child, nor of the family, nor of society, nor of God. The primary right is . . . the right of man and woman to their own life and happiness — the right not to be regarded as the means to any end.”
He concludes: “I don’t know if her program would require dictatorship, but she’d have made a good replacement for Kathleen Sebelius.”