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Jewish World Review
Aug 22, 2012/ 4 Elul, 5772
Who is John Galt? And why does Ayn Rand still fascinate the young?
Ayn Rand is in the news, as she always is in the subconscious of healthy American males. Reading her is as much a developmental stage as puberty. Most grow out of it, but that doesn't mean it leaves them, it just becomes part of their makeup somewhere back there. Like old girlfriends or wild nights on the town fondly remembered, but not something they'd want to go through again, please God.
For a brief bright period, like all forms of intoxication, the subject is convinced he's discovered the secret of the universe, the essence of existence, his purpose in life ... but in most cases such feelings pass, like adolescence itself. When they don't, it's called arrested development.
Ayn Rand called it objectivism. That's what she dubbed her "philosophy," though subjectivism would be more appropriate, for essentially her grand philosophy was her own egoism expanded into endless manifestos. All of which might be summed up in two words: greed glorified.
Of course Randism would appeal to young men -- well, boys -- eager to swallow life whole and be recognized for the brilliant leaders and thinkers they really are behind that mask of pimply nerdom.
You can find the same phenomenon in any new, youthful adherent of a particular cult, whether he's just discovered Karl Marx or Milton Friedman or any oracle in between. Suddenly all is clear and compelling. And the young man has become a fervent disciple of this all-seeing, all-explaining visionary. Ayn Rand is the same kind of mesmerizing figure, if only of comic-book dimension, and her works continue to fascinate adolescents of all ages.
A combination of libertarian fabulist and romance novelist, Miss Rand still casts her spell in books like "Atlas Shrugged," with its superhero John Galt, and "The Fountainhead," whose hero is an architect who would rather blow up his great work than see it desecrated by mediocre minds who would mess with his blueprints here and there. (Every writer whose Great American Novel is about to be "improved" by some clod of an editor can sympathize.)
It figures that, when "The Fountainhead" was made into a movie, which turned out to be even more stilted than the novel, its hero would be played by the very personification of the strong-and-silent type, Gary Cooper, while poor Patricia Neal had to hide her natural intelligence and play his ever-adoring disciple -- even though she must have grimaced inwardly all the way through her unconvincing lines. While the hero, like all of Miss Rand's, was the Alpha Male squared and cubed: the essence of both creativity and destruction.
Somewhere in all the Randian mythology, as there is in all lasting myth, there is a great truth. In this case, the same one the economist/philosopher Joseph Schumpeter proclaimed as the essence of capitalism: creative destruction, the creation of great enterprises by daring entrepreneurs, and then their being rendered obsolete by the next wave of economic innovators. Which explains why capitalism is such a revolutionary force in the history of homo economicus, or economic man.
It would take a sci-fi writer (like the concise and always entertaining Robert Heinlein) or a one-idea novelist (like the wordy and in the end boring Ayn Rand) to turn Schumpeter's great idea into pulp fiction -- to make it understandable, even romantic. Here is how Heinlein summed up both entrepreneurial capitalism and its less imaginative critics:
"Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded -- here and there, now and then -- are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as 'bad luck.' "
You can see why this Nietzschean version of economic history would appeal to the young and striving -- and no society that wants to thrive from generation to generation can survive without such youngbloods. It was only natural that so heroic a myth would appeal to spirited young Americans of imagination and ambition. Like a young man named Paul Ryan, who is about to be nominated for vice president of the United States.
Here is Congressman Ryan speaking to the Atlas Society, the official name of the Ayn Rand fan club, back in 2005: "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff." And what's more, "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."
Hear, hear, cheers and applause, alarums and excursions and all that. It's hard to imagine words from a young congressman more likely to get Ayn Rand fans, rugged individuals all, on their feet and expressing their approval in unison, their enthusiasm as well orchestrated as a Red Army chorus. Everyman a John Galt!
It would take a more thoughtful, or at least more experienced, conservative like Whittaker Chambers to get Ayn Rand's number. "Randian man," he once noted, "like Marxian man, is made the center of a godless world." Mr. Chambers was living proof that ex-Communists make the best conservatives. They've been through that hell and they haven't come back with empty hands, but bearing hard-earned lessons, among them a very old one: Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Godless capitalism, if turns out, can be as ruthless as godless communism.
To a great seer like Ayn Rand, at least in her own ideologically blinkered judgment, all that religious stuff was nonsense, if not an insidious conspiracy to keep us enslaved. It was only natural that her laissez-faire economic vision would enrage liberals, yet it was American conservatives whom she really despised, with all their Godtalk. Just as any true believer despises the heretic more than the infidel. Such conservatives may claim they believe in the free market, yet in their heart of hearts they refuse to worship it, and stubbornly hold on to the belief that some things are priceless, like the peace that surpasses all understanding.
Naturally enough, when Ayn Rand's hero and his brave band retreat to the wilderness at the close of Atlas Shrugged, he raises his hand and makes the sign of . . . the dollar, not the cross. Ayn Rand found her Holy Grail in man's acquisitive instincts, but she was never able to make American conservatives, at least those beyond a certain age, see the light.
One can understand Miss Rand's appeal to the young, and may it never diminish, but it's hard to understand why adults should think she was any better a thinker than she was a writer. As the critic Granville Hicks said of her second novel/manifesto, it had "only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds."
If you're not an Ayn Rand fan at 21, you have no youthful spirit. If you're still a fan at 42, you have no common sense. Paul Ryan, no longer a young firebrand but a husband, father and family man (and good Catholic), stopped taking Miss Rand's libertarian ideology straight some time ago. Which means he passes both tests. That is, he's perfectly normal.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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