by John J. Fitzgerald
February is the shortest month of the year. (This is by design. The ancient Romans made February their month of fasting, so they made it as short as possible! The Romans were not known for their fanaticism.) Despite being a short month, it has a large number of famous people claiming it as their birth month. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and W.E. B. DuBois were all born in February. So was the novelist and pseudo philosopher – Ayn Rand.
Rand has enjoyed a surge of popularity recently, thanks to Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan is a disciple of Ayn Rand.
He said of her, in 2005, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Three years ago Ryan was still praising Rand. “What’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” Ryan said. “I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case [for] capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault.”
Recently, April 2012, Ryan told National Review that his views of her had changed. “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan said. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.” He added that he had merely “enjoyed a couple of her novels” and his true inspiration was the Roman Catholic saint, Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas Aquinas favored burning the likes of Ayn Rand at the stake for heresy.
Who was Ayn Rand and what did she advocate? What follows is my attempt to delineate and explicate her message.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia on 2 February 1905. She survived the Russian Revolution and hated the Communist government that came to power there. She migrated to the United States in 1926 and found work in Hollywood as a writer. An early patron was the director Cecil B. DeMille. She is best known for her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism.
She first achieved fame with her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. In 1957, she published the novel Atlas Shrugged. Afterward she turned to nonfiction to promote her philosophy, publishing her own magazines and editing several collections of essays. She died in 1982. Her death was due to lung cancer brought on by a lifetime addiction to cigarettes. So much for the place of reason in her life.
Rand advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and/or religion. She supported rational and ethical egoism, and rejected ethical altruism. In her world, altruism was a vice not a virtue. In politics, she condemned the initiation of force as immoral and opposed collectivism and statism as well as anarchism, instead supporting a system of limited government and laissez-faire capitalism, which she believed was the only social system that protected individual rights. She was sharply critical of most philosophers and philosophical traditions known to her, except for some works of Aristotle and Nietzsche. She was a vehement opponent of Plato.
Some people see Rand as a cultural beacon guiding them to a better world away from “the herd” and the mass of conforming society. For them, she points the way to a new world with powerful heroes liberating themselves from “the yoke” of servitude that most humans live under. Others see Rand as, at best, an uncertified lunatic with extreme reactionary tendencies that verge on the edge of psychopathology. I tend to support this group.
Rand seems to resemble the Bourbons of France after the French Revolution. Of them it was said, “They never learned anything and they never forgot anything.” Rand was a fanatical anti-Communist and seemed to see signs of the Soviet State in every government that she lived under. Her much valued belief in freedom was contradicted when she spoke before the House Un-American Activities Committee to protest sympathetic treatment of Communists and labor union activists in Hollywood films. Rand did not seem to recognize the difference between a labor union working for higher pay, shorter hours and better working conditions and a political party seeking revolutionary change. To her they were the same thing.
In Hollywood, Rand became involved with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a Hollywood anti-Communist group, and wrote articles on the group’s behalf. She also joined the anti-Communist American Writers Association. In this activity she was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, Ginger Rogers and Ronald Reagan. These folks sided with the views of the Hollywood studios and corporate capital.
In 1947, Rand wrote a pamphlet for the Alliance. She wrote, “…The principle of free speech requires that we do not use police force to forbid the Communists the expression of their ideas — which means that we do not pass laws forbidding them to speak. But the principle of free speech does not require that we furnish the Communists with the means to preach their ideas, and does not imply that we owe them jobs and support to advocate our own destruction at our own expense.” In other words, in the name of freedom and liberty, Ayn Rand supported the “black listing” of so-called “subversive writers”. She did not want to jail them, but she wanted them rendered un-employable. So much for the First Amendment.
In 1964 Rand supported the election of Barry Goldwater. He was the man who said in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater went on to lose every state in the union except for Arizona and five states in the Deep South where black voters were not able to vote. In Mississippi, Goldwater got 87% of the white vote.
Ayn Rand might have some value as a writer of fiction, but she is hardly a decent guide to the realities of life in the modern world. May she rust in peace.