Shaidle Unchained

The Danger of Ayn Rand

April 18, 2017

Multiple Pages
The Danger of Ayn Rand

“While Rand’s inner circle continued to fray, Objectivism in New York was reaching fever pitch. With much fanfare, in May 1967 NBI signed fifteen-year lease on offices in the Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest building. Even though their offices were in the basement, it was still an ideal address.”
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Jennifer Burns, 2008)

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I didn’t know the difference between National Review and The New Republic. (By all means, write your own joke…) I was groping for guidance, as I always had, in the written word, but my knowledge of lofty (and, I hoped, helpful) American political journals was restricted to Woody Allen’s line in Annie Hall that “Dissent and Commentary had merged and formed Dysentery.”

After getting properly oriented, I became curious about the evolution of U.S. conservative and libertarian publications, and basically inhaled George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Nash’s classic introduced me to what I think of as “the old, weird, other America,” that of The Freeman and Albert Jay Nock, anti-Communist folk music and Isabel Paterson.

Of those who populated that long-passed world, only the name of Ayn Rand retains widespread recognition, almost 75 years since the release of her first novel (and subsequent cultural phenomenon), The Fountainhead. I don’t think Jennifer Burns meant it as such, but that bit above, about Rand’s riven yet driven disciples loudly setting up longish-term shop in the lowest level of the highest skyscraper, serves as an uncannily apt metaphor for Rand’s standing on the right.

“As an easily digestible purgative for impacted political correctness, we currently have no better at hand.”

Last week, The Guardian reported with predictable snark that Ayn Rand’s work has been added to the U.K.’s politics A-level curriculum. They note that Rand is “achingly on trend” and “having a moment.” Oh, dear. By my amateur estimation, Rand’s “moment-having” has been reoccurring every seven or eight years since the end of the Second World War, yet is always heralded with the same air of surprise and alarm.

Not that I am an unalloyed fan of the woman. Of course, like countless conceited teenagers before and after me, I was relieved to learn of Rand’s very existence, let alone her staggering success—evidence, surely, that more of “us” were not only out there, somewhere, but right.

Especially for a particular variety of female, Rand’s mannish ambition and uncompromising idealism set a rare and welcome example. Unlike Florence King, who broke her braces trying to mimic The Fountainhead’s imperious heroine, I found Rand’s thick fictions impossible to swallow.

However, I eagerly read The Virtue of Selfishness while in high school. (I want to type “of course”; Could a book title better calculated to appeal to the adolescent mind possibly be conceived, other than perhaps 101 Ways to Murder Everyone Around You and Get Away With It?)

Reading Goddess of the Market much later in life, I finally met the woman behind the philosophy. Rand doesn’t start out so bad, at least in Burns’ telling. Who can blame the Russian-born Rand, watching helplessly as Communists seize her father’s pharmacy, for growing up to be a furious foe of collectivism (and realpolitik compromise), whose übermensch heroes fight back against the “parasites, moochers and looters,” and win?

Yet the sprinklings of patriotic, almost Capra-esque populism that softened The Fountainhead’s unavoidable elitism are absent entirely in her follow-up, Atlas Shrugged, replaced by an almost hallucinatory misanthropy. What happened, Burns wonders, in the intervening thirteen years?

The answer seems obvious to me now, rereading her book in my 50s:

Menopause.

Ayn Rand, the avatar of adolescence, was going through The Change.

“Now in her forties,” writes Burns of the author between novels, “Rand struggled with her weight, her moodiness, her habitual fatigue.” Already dependent on the crazy-making Benzedrine she’d been popping to help her meet her Fountainhead deadline, Rand was hurtling toward what we’d now recognize as a midlife crisis.

Enter Nathaniel Blumenthal. He’d begun corresponding with Rand while still a high school student, but unlike her thousands of other teenage fans, he’d even memorized The Fountainhead. At UCLA, he’d coauthored a letter to the campus paper, declaring that a professor with suspected Communist ties who’d killed himself deserved “to be condemned to hell.” Then he changed his surname to “Branden” because it had “Rand” in it.

So, basically a nut. But a young, studly nut by all accounts. (I don’t see it myself; the publicity photo of Branden included in the book shows him posed stiffly at a podium, looking like nothing so much as a Poverty Row day player, poised to announce the arrival of aliens. You can almost hear Ed Wood shouting, “Action!” in the background.)

Despite (for him) or because of (for her) their 25-year age difference, when they inevitably met face-to-face, a folie à deux was birthed. They announced to their respective spouses that they were embarking on an affair. It was the “rational” thing to do, you see, because they were soul mates in soullessness.

However, young Branden soon experienced predictable trouble in the bedroom. Objectivist philosophy taught that sexuality—like everything else in Rand’s universe—was a matter of Reason (with a very large, sans serif capital R, in bold). Sex was a physical response to shared intellectual values, not animal instinct. And certainly not physical attraction—what else would one expect from a worldview cooked up by a plain, brainy female?

It all ended badly, of course. When the whole sordid saga became public, some of Rand’s disciples fell away in disgust, but astonishingly, neither these revelations nor the ones about antistatist, anti-parasite Ayn raking in Social Security checks at the end of her days were enough to get Objectivism tossed onto the same homegrown utopian trash heap as the Shakers and Oneida.

Instead, Rand’s books continue to sell more than briskly. And now they’ll be required reading for the brighter slice of British kids—none of whom, alas, will be interested in my “menopause theory” of Atlas Shrugged. (Yet.)

As I say, the left is aghast, although I suspect many are quietly pleased, thinking that exposure to Rand will put enough students off capitalism to be worth any risk.

But we on the right have no right to blush. We’ve had well over half a century to create another body of writing—fiction or not—that conveys as contagiously (if as wackily and one-sidedly) as Rand did the glories of invention, intellect, and individuality.

We’ve failed.

And anyhow, anything—even as wigdoodle as Objectivism—that exposes young people to an alternative to the prevailing conformist, do-gooder, social justice culture can’t be all bad.

As an easily digestible purgative for impacted political correctness, we currently have no better at hand. But a diet of laxatives is a contradiction in terms, and ultimately fatal.

Like many poisons, Ayn Rand’s danger lies in the dosage.

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