As the race for the White House turns to the vice presidential debate, I’ve pondered the role of Ayn Rand in modern day American politics. Representative Paul Ryan famously stated that “… 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,” only to disown Rand a few years later, once his candidacy on the national stage loomed large. Yet commentators like Michael Tomasky unflinchingly align Ryan with Rand’s objectivist philosophy, saying that his getting into politics because of Rand is “sort of the moral equivalent of being inspired to go into the energy business by Enron.” Paul Krugman in an op-ed titled “Galt, God and Gold” notes how the congressman’s fiscal and monetary policy reflect Rand’s influence and ponders “What does it say about the party when its intellectual leader evidently gets his ideas largely from deeply unrealistic fantasy novels?”
Who is Ayn Rand? I recall one friend in college recommending that I read Atlas Shrugged, but I never did so; being seen toting around said hefty volume carried a certain connotation I chose not to be identified with while I was in school. Within the milieu of my upbringing, it was understood that Rand’s philosophical pretensions lacked seriousness and her absence from the literary curriculum seemed to reflect that her work did not show enough artistic merit to warrant much attention. But, given her stature in American politics, I had to wonder, what did I miss?
I took to YouTube to remedy my ignorance, where you can watch the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead in its entirety. The screenplay was written by Rand, as critic Craig Seligman points out, “under a contract that stipulated […] that not a single word be changed,” reflecting the ethos of Howard Roark, the protagonist (played by Gary Cooper). Roark is a uniquely talented architect of uncompromising creative integrity and it is his defense that lies at the heart of this film. He faces Ellsworth Toohey (played by Robert Douglas), who manipulates public opinion against Roark and seems motivated only by the acquisition of power in the tradition of cartoon villains. In this way, Rand sets up the struggle between individualism and collectivism, her main philosophical concern.
Seligman finds that the film is “one of the purest examples of camp in the history of cinema,” which may be too harsh a treatment considering director King Vidor’s often dazzling cinematography, but does speak to the characters’ flatness and inhumanity. Neither Roark nor any of the other characters are written as plausible human beings, but as the personified ideologies that make up Rand’s understanding of modernity. Never mind that he rapes his eventual lover, Dominique Francon (something that occurs in the novel but is only suggested in the film); Howard Roark represents what an individualist should aspire to, the integrity necessary to live a life of virtue. It is his unrelenting character that both leads him to commit what today would constitute an act of terrorism (detonating explosives and destroying a construction project he originally designed, but which was altered by others) and be absolved of his crime. If any of this seems morally contradictory, that’s because it is.
The late Mike Wallace interviewed Rand in 1959, thus providing a public service to those of us who in 2012 feel a need to better understand why she still is a political firebrand. She explains objectivism, her philosophy, and her call for a morality based “not on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason.” For Rand, man “has to hold reason as an absolute” and “has to hold reason as his only guide to action.” In this context, she considers altruism to be evil and sets out to challenge “the base of all institutions” that hold “the moral code of altruism;” I began to see why a politician like Ryan might have trouble courting the religious conservative vote by touting his Randian roots.
To be fair, it’s in the understanding of economics where Ryan might still speak of having been influenced by Rand. It’s worth noting that Rand’s laissez-faire beliefs also influenced the likes of Alan Greenspan, which should show just how relevant she has been to our times, but I’ll set aside a discussion of them for the future.
Considering how Howard Roark was shown to be the paragon of virtue due to his creative integrity, I was shocked when Rand answered Wallace that her philosophy came “of my own mind, with the sole acknowledgement of a debt to Aristotle, who is the only philosopher who ever influenced me.” What about Nietzsche, who wrote “the demand of one morality for all is detrimental to the higher men” in Beyond Good and Evil? Nietzsche, who, as Brian Leiter describes, “attacks morality both for its commitment to untenable descriptive (metaphysical and empirical) claims about human agency, as well as for the deleterious impact of its distinctive norms and values on the flourishing of the highest types of human beings”? Rand claimed she “built it” even as she stood on the shoulders of the giants that came before.
During my foray into the internet to understand Ayn Rand, I found that as much as there might be to admire about her, there’s altogether too much to be said about what is untenable within her philosophy. Going back to Aristotle, I encountered something that spoke volumes to me about the contradictions she embodied; in his Politics, he states,
“The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.”
Ayn Rand was neither a beast nor a goddess, despite all the disparagement and idolatry surrounding her. For the sake of understanding what individualism and collectivism mean in our politics, I hope we can understand her (and ourselves) as human; all too human.