The Age of Selfishness: The Continuing Appeal of Ayn Rand

July 10, 2015 at 1:52 am (Uncategorized) ()

“When I was a kid, I read Captain Marvel and Superman comics. I didn’t read them because I was a big, strong guy like Cap or Supe;  I read them because I was a skinny kid. I loved reading about Superman because I didn’t resemble him at all.

“That, I think, helps explain Ayn Rand’s lasting appeal. Rand’s fans are rarely the sort of intrepid, self-reliant go-it-along entrepreneurial heroes she writes about. Rather, they’ve typically spent their lives in the comfortable embrace of large institutions, going from school to university to corporation, or from think tank to government and back again. If Paul Ryan – a government bureaucrat if ever there was one – loves reading about John Galt or Hank Reardon, it’s  because he doesn’t resemble them at all.

“Not that we should dismiss Rand. It’s easy to call her writing ‘badly executed on every level of language, plot and characterization,’ as Thomas Mallon wrote in the New Yorker in 2009, or to mock her ideas as ‘stuff that seems very deep when you’re nineteen years old,” as Bill Maher put it in 2013. But judging her books as literature or as serious social science misses the point. Her books, like Superman comics are fantasies. And fantasies are powerful.

“The fact that Rand’s novles, despite their numbing length, are fundamentally simplistic- even, well, cartoonish – makes the fantasy more compelling, not less.”

Michael Goodwin, Introduction to The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis by Darryl Cunningham.

I confess I never read Ayn Rand’s work in high school or university;  I was a Lord of the Rings man. Sure, I read some of her ‘shorter’ pieces, but the general flavour of it seemed to be a pseudo-intellectual justification for petty selfishness written in such a turgid, didactic style as to be virtually unreadable.  But apparently, it is readable.  So many conservatives cite her work as inspirational, could I have missed something? And her work still sells. In vast quantities. Surely there must be something there?

Well, I suspect that many who cite her influence didn’t make it through the cannon, but rather relied on the Cliff Notes account (is there such a thing) or the Wikipedia entry. It’s just a way of  appearing deep and scholarly while acting out of simple greed.

Rand herself though presents a massive range of contradictions and inconsistencies, and oddly enough supported a whole range of positions that would make many a neo-con wince, not to mention those who didn’t think unfettered capitalism was a panacea for all the ills of society:

  • She hated feminism, but believed abortion was a right.
  • She despised Christianity and was an unrepentant atheist.
  • She disliked Reagan
  • She thought homosexuals were disgusting, but she disapproved of laws against homosexuality.
  • She believed that native peoples’ were savages and felt that their displacement from land was OK because they hadn’t developed it.
  • She also believed that tobacco had nothing to do with lung cancer even after she developed lung cancer (She was a heavy smoker all her life)
  • At the end of her life took medicare payments and social security, arguing that this was not hypocritical, but rather she was just taking back what was owed her, it having been stolen earlier in the forms of taxes. Erm, Ayn, everyone does that. (Does this make you a Welfare Queen?)
  • And she paid lip service to intellectual independence only to surround herself with sycophants, casting into the darkness those who disagreed with her.

There’s a new graphic novel biography of her called The Age of Selfishness. The first chapter dealing with Rand’s life and her  numerous blind spots about her own ideas and behaviour are dealt with in a very readable way. The second chapter which deals with the recent financial crisis is less interesting as it holds the standard interpretation that the crash was caused by greedy bankers looting the store rather than a problem endemic to capitalism. My own views are better explained in Internationalist Perspective. The third section delves into the psychology of selfishness and human nature and is the least interesting in my opinion.

Still, if you’re hungering for more people mocking the libertarian  loon, check out John Oliver’s bit How is She still a thing?

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