Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ayn Rand- Author, Atheist, Elitist, Icon of the Right.....and Fan of a Child Killer?

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Terri posted a link on FACEBOOK about the 20th century writer- philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-82) and her fascination with William Hickman, a sadistic murderer who was executed in 1928 for the horrific killing of 12 year old Marian Parker. What makes this relationship relevant to today and to modern American politics is because of the resurgence of Rand's philosophy of objectivism, and Rand's popularity among modern American conservatives and Libertarians, among them Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, Bob Barr, and Ron Paul. President Ronald Reagan was said to be an admirer of Rand's work.

Initially I was going to just provide a link to the page on AlterNet that told the story of Rand and Hickman, but then I became involved in spending sometime in reacquainting myself with Ayn Rand and objectivism. So for about six to eight hours on Saturday I read about Rand, and read more about her philosophy and her works of fiction, including The Fountainhead and what may have been her defining work, Atlas Shrugged. In recent years sales of Atlas Shrugged have seen a spike because her views of laissez-faire captalism, and of the ability of "man the producer" to lift himself higher to a full potential has appeal to those on the political right, and has been adopted by some in the "Tea Party" movement as a manifesto. And while doing my research I came across the original article about Rand-Hickman on The Exiled website. If you go to that version of the story you can see photos of Tea Party members carrying signs in support of Ayn Rand and her philosophy.

What began as a short linkup for this blog became a weekend long mini research project to to rediscover Ayn Rand- just who was she and what were her beliefs? And I struck gold with some amazing videos she made in her lifetime. So I watched her live performance with Phil Donahue from 1980, as well as an interview she did with a University of Michigan professor (circa 1960)....and I took notes; lots and lots of them.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum Tsarist Russia in 1905. Her family could be called non-observant Jews. After the Revolution of 1917 Rand attended the University of Petrograd, majoring in history, but also studying the philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle, and her greatest influence, Friedrich Nietzsche. Authors she admired greatly were Edmond Rostand and Victor Hugo, among others. Rand emigrated to the United States in 1926, saying she was going to visit relatives in America....she never returned to the Soviet Union. She adopted her new name and became a naturalized American citizen in 1931.

Rand met director Cecil B. DeMille and worked as an extra in his silent epic about the life of Christ, King of Kings. She subsequently became a screenwriter, which opened the door to her writing works of fiction and non fiction. She married actor Frank O'Connor in 1929.

The basis of Rand's objectivism can be summed as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

This concept, and her demand for limited government and laissez-faire capitalism, has helped to lead to a resurgenece in interest in Rand by conservatives and some in the "Tea Party" movement, who see the actions of the Obama administration as being too much government interference, with the Wall Street and bank bailouts, and the Obama administration's attempt to reform health care.

What I find interesting is the "cafeteria approach" conservatives have as far as Rands objectivism....Catholics who are seen to "pick and choose"doctrine they can adhere to are sometimes referred to as "Cafeteria Catholics". And Rand's conservative fans, it seems, are "guilty" of the same thing....which may be a poor choice of words because belief in objectivism may leave the user void of any sense of guilt. But I'll explain what I mean momentarily.

Objectivism is a belief that man lives to be a producer, and in doing so he must stay on course to reach that goal to obtain his individual happiness. Its up to the individual to find his own destiny and happiness.

But here are some problems....and here's why Rand and objectivism have strange bedfellows with the modern conservative movement.

Objectivism and atheism; Rand was an atheist almost from the time she was a child, and remained one throughout her life. To her organized religion and belief in a God were illogical and dangerous. A video interview posted at the Ayn Rand Institute website from the time of Atlas Shrugged's publication shows her referring to people who lead by faith as "witch doctors". She decried organized religion as "mysticism", and found those who practice faith as being weak and illogical.

There is such irony here, especially when President Obama took so much heat from conservatives for an inviting an atheist group to the White House, while some of the same critics believe Rand's economic philosophy but turn a blind eye towards her atheism and disdain for practitioners of religion. I wonder how many of these "Neo-Randians" have actually taken a look at her whole life and philosophy? And just how many "TheoCons" would hold her in such esteem had they known of her atheism?

Objectivism rejects altruism; This is a part of Rand's philosophy that caused me the most problem. "Altruism" is the concept of living a life to do good for others. Rand's objectiveism incorporates the belief in egoism- doing what is in one's best self interest. I thought about the altruism we see in everyday life- we sometimes do what's best for our friends and family, because of our love for them. Cops and firefighters risk their lives for complete strangers everyday. Teachers instruct children of adults they don't know, public defenders make sure those accused of crimes get a fair shake in court. The men and women of our armed forces fight and sometimes die because they want to serve something that is bigger than them.

And then I thought about the World Trade Center on 9/11, and all of the first responders who ran into an inferno to save lives, knowing they may not come back....and those countless people who have sprung to aid Haiti after the destructive earthquakes.

There's something noble and right and ethical about altruism....and not so for the "me first" doctrine of Ayn Rand's ethical egoism, a theory that tells you to leave your family and friends if you think they are a hindrance to you.

Its disturbing...its wrong....its unAmerican.

And to my religious friends, its about as un-Christian a concept as I've ever seen or heard.

The development of "professional intellectuals"- The Republicans and conservatives are often accused of being "anti-intellectual". You may or may not agree. But in the same interview from the Ayn Rand Institute Rand talks about developing "professional intellectuals"...I suppose these "Pro's' would have been selected on the basis of how closely they agree with Ayn Rand.

Liberals are often labeled by the Right as "the Elite".

But I have yet to see the anyone else other than Ayn Rand call for a special category of our work force who's only purpose would be to tell us all how stupid and nonsensical the rest of us are. But I'm sure Ann Coulter likes Rand, so how elite can she be?

Below, I embedded the five part episode of DONAHUE featuring Rand in 1980, about two years before her death. Its an interesting glimpse into a controversial mind. I found her to be chilly, distant, and- not surprisingly- more than a little disturbing. Her answer about what to do with the disabled and mentally challenged (whom she referred to as "retarded") are close to being fascistic.....and actually display her belief in Charles Darwin and survival of the fittest.

Also, look at how she handles criticism from the audience members- there was no room for descent in her ranks- my way or the highway.

My bottom line with Ayn Rand....while attempting to be a philosophical and intellectual liberator of man, she became an intolerant judge of all that was around her. To find her being an icon and hero of many in a political movement is more than a little disturbing to say the least.

We're all Americans. And we should be made of better stuff.

For more information about Ayn Rand, see the Ayn Rand Institute.

Below, the link for the story of Ayn Rand's alleged admiration for the early 20th century serial killer William Hickman.

READ MORE.....from | Books | AlterNet


Sue said...

I read about this the other day and thought about doing a SMALL post, but your work here is super, great job Hugh!

Ayn Rand freaks me out. How anyone could hold her in high esteem makes me shiver. But what else would we expect from conservatives?

Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

Sue- what was especially disturbing to me about her is her apparent disdain for all but two things; unbridled and unchecked capitalism and Ayn Rand.

She was against America's entrance into World War II and Korea, hated communism, socialism, fascism....but held libertarians in low regard as well. She condemned authoritarianism but could not tolerate criticism of her philosophy.

I just started peeling back the layers, and found her as a strange, scary, yet fascinating subject...and maybe that's part of her appeal to some people. Go figure.

Glad you enjoyed it.

Burke said...

As a long time (50 yr) admirer of Ayn Rand and her philosophy, I'm happy to see her and her ideas being discussed, even when the discussions contain many errors, as the above analysis does.

My advice is always the same: don't try to learn about Ayn Rand by reading things written *about* her. Nine times out of ten, what you read will be seriously wrong.

First, read The Fountainhead and then read Atlas Shrugged. There are reasons these novels were bestsellers and have remained so popular for so many years.

Then read her non-fiction books.

You can find everything you need to know about how to find them at:

BJCotter said...

Especially after reading Atlas Shrugged and now having seen both movies, Ayn Rand has shown she was a part of the right time in history. Her work will be around for generations to come, those who are currently saddled with the debt of others (not to mention foolish politicians). Public Education - FAIL, Too big to fail - FAIL, government control over our lives will not be tolerated they are ours to live our way and without "force" by anyone or any entity. If we FAIL on our own and because of our own effort that is on us. It's not for the government or "society" to MAKE US FAIL which is what is currently happening. Thank YOU Ayn Rand for helping some of the world WAKE UP today because of your input years ago.

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