Many years ago, I was assigned to write an article based on questionnaires given to a few dozen prominent figures in Cobb County, just northwest of Atlanta. One of the questions asked what the respondents’ favorite books were.
Number One, far and away, was the Bible.
Number Two? “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.
I always thought this was a juxtaposition for the ages. (Apparently, it wasn’t exceptional; the Book-of-the-Month Club and Library of Congress got the same results when they did a survey in 1991.) On the one hand, you had a book of stories that included perhaps the most selfless person ever, a man who spoke in parables and aphorisms. On the other was a book that extolled selfishness and culminated in an over-the-top 50-page speech that summarized Rand’s Objectivist philosophy.
How can you love both?
OK, confession time: I side with the Jewish carpenter.
I can understand Rand’s appeal — it must be wonderful to believe that not only does the world owe you nothing, but you owe nothing to the world and can let your individualistic “I got mine, Jack, fuck you” flag fly — but I don’t buy it. I believe in compassion, empathy, teamwork and sacrifice. Rand’s characters only believe in these things when it serves their purpose — and nobody else’s.
With the election of Donald Trump and the triumph of the Republican Party, which is slated to dominate all three branches of the U.S. government, I wonder if we’re about to formally enter an Ayn Rand era. Speaker Paul Ryan has talked frequently about his admiration for Rand, and there’s no reason to believe that he’s not going to follow through on his plans for a more Randian society. (Hope you enjoyed your Social Security benefits, Paul — but screw the rest of us, right?)
In that spirit, it helps to know the woman who created “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” She was charismatic and convincing; she was also hypocritical and unpleasant.
Here are two pieces about her for my Sunday read. One is by libertarian Charles Murray, who loves her books even as he admits the woman behind them was gravely flawed. The other is by psychologist Denise Cummins, who questions how Rand’s theories have worked in a real-life environment.
We may get the chance to find out what they’ll do to America soon enough. Dollar sign on the lapel, right, Ayn?