Ayn Rand – Who She Was and Why She’s Significant in 2012
Max Manasevit – Muze Staff Writer
Who is Ayn Rand, and how has a Russian born woman, with a German sounding name, who has been dead for thirty years become the most influential thinker in American political discourse?
Her detractors call her Objectivist philosophy hedonistic as it singularly extolls the virtue of rational self-interest (every person acting in their own best interest, is what is best for society as a whole). They see her as glorifying human selfishness, and believe it to be a philosophy that champions a cold dog eat dog world completely devoid of even basic human compassion.
Her supporters, which include Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, view Objectivism as embodying the American tradition of individualism. Her seminal text Atlas Shrugged is proof to her followers of the inevitable dystopia that will occur if government meddles in business, and collectivism is elevated over individualism.
Rand’s influence on the American right is a rather new phenomenon. While her books serve as a scathing critique of communism, many of her other positions made an alliance between conservative anti-communist Americans and Rand untenable.
It is strange that what is often considered the “Christian Right” has become so enamored with Rand and her Objectivist movement. In the 1950’s America’s conservatives kept their distance from Rand in part due to her militant atheism.
She again angered much of conservative America in the 1960’s with her vehement opposition to the Vietnam War.
It was not only certain political views espoused by Rand that earned her the contempt of America’s right. Many influential conservatives believed Rand’s work was intellectually lacking. Whittaker Chambers, writing for the conservative and influential National Review, said Atlas Shrugged was “sophomoric” and “remarkably silly.” Sidney Hook, an influential anti-communist, believed Rand’s work had more in common with Soviet propaganda than legitimate philosophy. Many serious intellectuals dismissed Rand’s work as merely reactionary. They viewed Rand not as laying serious philosophical groundwork, but rather settling a score with the Soviets because they had confiscated her father’s pharmacy.
Others faulted Rand for defending Objectivism through the creation of self-interested utopias or collectivist dystopias. After seeing the horrifying failures of the supposed “perfect” societies of the Third Reich and Soviet Union, Western academics were skeptical of a new political system that defended itself through utopian exercises.
Yet despite official scorn, Rand always appealed to the American masses. Her book The Fountainhead was panned by critics, but its celebration of her Objectivist philosophy became a best seller. Her books have always enjoyed a near cult following on college campuses, and eventually her support of unbridled capitalism allowed her ideas to maneuver into the Republican mainstream.
By the 1990’s Randian thought had overcome its pariah status and started to appear in conservative dialogue. In 1990 the Institute for Objectivist Studies was founded, and Ayn Rand’s name could be heard tumbling from the mouths of influential Republicans.
The recent financial crisis however, has vaulted Ayn Rand from being one of the political thinkers exerting influence in conservative circles, to becoming the matriarch of the Republican Party’s current incarnation.
At Tea Party protests signs proclaiming “I Am John Galt” (the protagonist that the government robs in Atlas Shrugged) abound. Ron Paul (and his son Rand, who is not in fact named for Ayn) fill college auditoriums by espousing the virtues of Objectivism.
There is clearly something about Rand’s ideas of limited government, property rights, and selfishness that attract modern Americans en mass. Maybe government promises and increased intervention in public schools, low-income housing, and job creation coupled with the perception of limited improvement or even regression in these areas, leaves any talk of more government with a bad taste in the speaker’s mouth.
Maybe Rand is so popular because Americans always believe they are right around the corner from joining the ubber-wealthy. Or as John Steinbeck once said “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Something about Rand’s promised utopia where the best and brightest always succeed may attract the traditionally optimistic American public.
It is also possible, that like many on the left contend, Objectivism made a comeback because it has been force-fed to Main Street by Wall Street. The myths of its success used calculatingly by the ubber-wealthy, allowing them to selfishly hoard wealth while eliminating backlash. Wolves of the financial industry tricking middle class American sheep into voting against their own interests.
Whatever the reason, Ayn Rand’s ideas could very well be about to experience their moment in the sun. With a Republican ticket that unabashedly supports her philosophy’s core tenants within striking distance of the White House, and a GOP which is becoming increasingly ruled by Tea Party Randians, the Objectivist American experiment may almost be upon us. Regardless of personal belief, after this year’s election, the country may need to cross its fingers and hope the woman born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum was right.
Tags: American Politics, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, Conservative, John Galt, Objectivism, Paul Ryan, Republican Party, Tea Party, The Fountainhead, 2012 election, Libertarians, Libertarianism, American Conservatives
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