The virtue of selfishness
Once upon a time in America an eccentric Russian expatriate penned a bunch of essays and novels in which she invented her "Objectivist" philosophy. Her real name was Alisa Rosenbaum, but the world remembers her as Ayn Rand. The legend is that she took her last name from her typewriter, a Remington Rand. She espoused laissez-faire capitalism to the max. The rich and powerful were her heroes. The lower and middle classes were fodder to be exploited by the creative, inventive and aggressive, i.e., people just like her.
Literary critics trashed her novels, if they reviewed them at all. Her 1200-page magnum opus "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) was described by the Washington Post as "a story of conflict where it is equally easy to hate both sides. It howls in its reader's ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention, and then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page after page." The New York Times reviewer went further: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding 'To a gas chamber - go!'"
The book's "hero," John Galt persuades the best and the brightest, such as himself, to withdraw their participation from a dystopian America that has been - oh, horror of horrors - taxing them and redistributing the revenue to their needy fellow citizens. Once Galt gets the one-percenters to sit on their well-fed bottoms, society quickly unravels, plunging into chaos.
By the time she died in 1982, Rand was a nasty old crone, who when she (rarely) left her New York apartment, wandered the neighborhood in her housecoat. But, as Journalist Gary Weiss points out in his new book "Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul," the outward shabbiness of Rand's last days was deceptive. More revealing, reports Weiss, is a 1974 black-and-white photo of Rand with the President of the United States and none other than a youthful Alan Greenspan, just appointed to his first big federal post. Turns out that Greenspan was a devoted member of the cult of Rand.
That cult currently includes the GOP 2012 vice-presidential candidate.
In 1957, the year "Atlas Shrugged" was birthed, Stanley Marcus, chairman of financial giant Nieman Marcus, said, "Who among the business community today would seriously propose that Congress repeal our child-labor laws- or the Sherman Anti-Trust Act? The Federal Reserve Act, the Securities Exchange Act? Or workman's compensation? Or Social Security? Or minimum wage? Or Medicare?"
In 2011, Medicare was on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's hit list.
How could this be? Weiss tells us that at a Rand feat, Ryan claimed 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." The self-absorbed fanatic, whose philosophy was captured in the title of a 1964 collection of her essays - "The Virtue of Selfishness" - inspired both Alan Greenspan, perhaps the most influential economist of the past 30 years, and Paul Ryan, the Tea Party's current darling.
She is inspiring many more. "Atlas Shrugged" sold 600,000 copies in 2009, an all-time high for this Rand perennial. Sales no doubt were stimulated further by the 2011 release of "Atlas Shrugged - Part 1," starring "One Tree Hill" actor Paul Johansson as Galt. Part 2 was released earlier this fall.
Exactly a year ago, Rotten Tomatoes described "Atlas Shrugged - Part 1" as "a passionless experience that feels like a TV movie/miniseries. It's flat, poorly plotted, thinly performed and dull to its core…." Mr. Ryan's run for the vice presidency might be described in much the same way.
No matter: in the antebellum South, slavery had its apologists among the professorate and the Protestant churches. The Nazis had, and still have, their defenders, including Holocaust-deniers. And Bernie Madoff, Jamie Dimon, Goldman-Sachs and AIG have Ayn Rand to reassure them that greed is not only okay, it's the new American virtue.
Although "Atlas Shrugged" sold 600,000 copies in 2009, and the Bible is still the best-selling book of all time, I have to wonder if people are actually reading these books after they buy them, or if they're just putting them on their living room bookshelves in order to appear well read.
After all, Bible passages are often misinterpreted or twisted to suit an argument. "What Would Jesus Do?" is all too often used as an excuse for hate and bigotry when it's masked as concern. Christianity is supposed to promote forgiveness and love, but we all know that's not always the case.
I've never read "Atlas Shrugged," so I can't speak to the validity of Paul Ryan's claims of being inspired by her book. I do, whoever, know a few things about Ayn Rand; for one, she was an atheist, which I would assume Paul Ryan knows, except that atheism is in direct opposition with almost all of his convictions. Even more directly in opposition is the fact that Ayn Rand believed in abortion. In her own words:
"An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right-which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?"
Paul Ryan is a known and outspoken proponent of the Personhood Movement, which is really asking for quite a lot of selflessness from a woman who promoted selfishness as a virtue. Once again, I have to ask: does he really know what he's talking about?