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11.27.09

Capitalism's Wicked Witch

Ayn Rand is having another moment, and critic Allen Barra thinks we should once and for all recognize her as a fraud and an ideologue with creepy followers.

Any objectivity about the founder of Objectivism is impossible. I’ll lay my cards on the table—Ayn Rand and her followers have given me the creeps since high school. Rand herself always looked to me like Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Krebb in From Russia with Love, and her disciples like extras from Village of the Damned.

The appeal of Rand’s philosophy to confused teenagers—and what other kind is there?—was obvious: Existence is summed up in a neater, tighter package than in Christianity or Marxism. To many of the students in the upscale all-white high school I attended, Objectivism offered a rousing guilt-free defense of privilege; ambiguities and loose ends were the product of “faulty thinking.” The Randians were bullies, roving around and looking to start debates in which they could ask questions and make anyone who didn’t have ready answers seem weak and foolish. “Check your premises!” they would say, looking you in the eye with a finger pointed at your forehead.

Rand’s real heirs are Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who read passages from her books to their audiences, careful to avoid writings that would alienate the fundamentalist right.

Four decades later, the cult of personality that created Rand’s movement is still strong, but it’s unlikely to survive two new biographies: Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns. Heller is a better biographer, and Burns better on Rand’s influence on the right wing’s politics and economics. But they agree more than they disagree. If you read both books back to back, you have a 700-page portrait of a humorless, puritanical didact who was contemptuous of, among many other things, homosexuals, American Indians (arguing that Europeans had a right to take their land because the natives did not recognize “individual rights”), Medicare, family values, beatniks, hippies, and libertarians, whom she regularly referred to as “scum,” “intellectual cranks,” and “worse than anything the New Left has proposed.”

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Ayn Rand and the World She Made. By Anne C. Heller. 592 pages. Nan A. Talese. $35. ()

She opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was vehemently against the draft (but called those who evaded it “bums”), and “regarded the feminist movement as utterly without legitimacy.” In her novels, she glorified rape—if it was committed by the right kind of man. Heller quotes her most famous disciple and lover Nathaniel Branden as saying, “What she wanted was a man whose esteem would reduce her to a sex object.”

Oh, and for the last 30 years of her life, she was addicted to amphetamines.

So much for the small stuff. Rand was also, despite her avowed love of America, contemptuous of democracy. In an admiring 1958 letter, the economist Ludwig von Mises told Rand, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: You are inferior, and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted, you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” And apparently women, too. In a 1936 novel, We the Living, a stand-in for Rand tells a Bolshevik with blood-chilling candor, “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods.”

Heller and Burns have both found an even scarier Rand text, what Heller describes as “a stunningly harsh and antisocial novella called ‘The Little Street 1928,’ based on the actual trial of a notorious killer named William Hickman...” The real Hickman had strangled and dismembered an 8-year-old girl in Los Angeles, but Rand admired Hickman’s “disdainful countenance, his immense, explicit [sic] egoism.” This, Heller adds, “is practically a diagnostic description of narcissism, and also a description of Rand herself.”

Rand was a self-made narcissist. Born Alisa Rosenbaum to Jewish parents in St. Petersburg in 1905, she changed her name at least in part to hide her ancestry. Heller, who is very good on odd biographical details, has unearthed some fascinating bits: At school, one of her best chums was Olga Nabokova, sister of Vladimir. (Now there’s a match. Could there possibly be a greater aesthetic gulf than that between the authors of Lolita and Atlas Shrugged?) Starry-eyed from hours spent in movie theaters, she left the Soviet Union for the U.S. and Chicago in the 1920s before relocating to Hollywood, where she worked as a hack screenwriter. There she met a handsome young nonentity named Frank O’Connor, a bit player in movies; they were soon married. Why such a powerful woman would marry “such a sweetly ambitious man,” as Heller charitably calls him, would always mystify Rand’s and O’Connor’s friends. (O’Connor would describe himself, accurately, as “an ideal wife” and “Mr. Ayn Rand.”)

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Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. By Jennifer Burns. 384 pages. Oxford University Press. $27.95. ()

O’Connor, at least, didn’t stand in the way of Rand’s writing (which he doesn’t seem to have understood anyway) and took care of the household while Rand’s novels brought her from cult to mass cult status. By the late 1950s, Objectivism, at least in her inner circle, meant “blind obeisance” to Rand, and no one was more faithful than Nathaniel Branden. There were show trials—Heller calls them “kangaroo courts”—where those who strayed from the path were humiliated in front of their peers for heresy. “Defendants who promptly confessed their guilt and promised to work harder at living Objectivist principles were let back into the fold.”

A psuedo-intellectual parasite, Branden became Rand’s “bulldog,” pressuring the faithful into line; he tried to force one group member to leave his wife because she was a Christian. Much to their spouses’ chagrin, Rand and Branden had an affair. But when he began an affair with a young actress and broke off with Rand, she was enraged. "You have no right,” she shrieked at him, “to have sex with some inferior woman.” After forsaking Rand and the movement, Branden would later apologize to “every student of Objectivism...not only for perpetuating the Ayn Rand mystique but also for contributing to that dreadful atmosphere of intellectual repressiveness that pervades the Objectivist movement.”

Reading the revelations in both biographies, one can’t help but believe that at least one reason for Rand’s success is that many were simply not willing to take her at face value. For instance, she told an interviewer that she hated Tolstoy and Faulkner and Nabokov (at least the half of Lolita she professed to have read) and that the only 19th-century novelist she admired was Victor Hugo and the only contemporary novelist Mickey Spillane; many laughed and assumed she was going for shock value. That she lacked the critical faculties to understand how bad a writer Spillane was doesn’t seem to have occurred to them

She seems to have written more books than she read. Her novels are composed of overcooked ingredients from late 19th-century potboilers. They live only as illustrations of Rand’s simple-minded philosophy: the good (i.e., those with sufficient self-esteem) win out and the bad (collectivists, altruists, and sentimentalists with insufficient appreciation for laissez-faire capitalism) get punished. Her characters are two-dimensional with no shading, nuance, or mixed emotions. (Pauline Kael nailed The Fountainhead, both the novel and the film made from it, as “wildly extravagant Kitsch.”)

Rand also seems to have read very little on economics. Friedrich von Hayek, whose The Road to Serfdom (1944) became a conservative bible, was dismissed by Rand not on economic grounds but for daring to suggest that government and private enterprise might work together. Hayek says Burns “acknowledged there could be an important role for government-sponsored health care, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage.” But then, Rand once told Time magazine, “I am a philosopher, not an economist.”

But was Rand even a philosopher? Beyond claiming Aristotle as an influence, glibly dismissing Plato as the “father of communism,” and alleging inspiration from Nietzsche, there is little evidence that Rand knew much about philosophy. She became one of the most popular pundits of the 20th century by throwing all other philosophy out the window and redefining terms to suit herself. Surely the term that suits her is not philosopher but ideologue.

After O’Connor’s death in 1979, the prototype for The New Intellectual spent her days in her New York apartment watching reruns of Charlie’s Angels and The Rat Patrol and going across the street to make deposits in a savings bank—the savior of capitalism knew nothing of stocks or investments. She died in 1982 from heart failure exacerbated by a bout with lung cancer; for years she had rationalized smoking as “man’s victory over fire.”

Rand left no real heirs, since as Burns writes, “Objectivism as a philosophy left no room for elaboration, extension or interrelation, and as a social world it excluded growth, change, or development.” Although she despised libertarians, her influence on their movement has been profound. Burns, though, pinpoints the unbridgeable gulf between Rand and conservatives: “Whereas traditional conservatism emphasized duties, responsibilities, and social interconnectedness, at the core of the right-wing ideology that Rand spearheaded was a rejection of moral obligation to others.”

Her real heirs are Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who read passages from her books to their audiences, careful to avoid writings that would alienate the fundamentalist right. You can draw a straight line from Rand’s equation of JFK and Hitler to the tea-baggers who paint swastikas on pictures of Barack Obama.

Rand’s most influential protégé, though, is Alan Greenspan, who confessed to Congress in October 2008 that he had “found a flaw” in his ideology: He had never taken into account the power of human greed. Objectivist economics never anticipated Gordon Gekko. The result is a country whose financial structure, 28 years after Reagan was elected, looks pretty much like the landscape devastated by “collectivists” and “altruists” at the beginning of Atlas Shrugged.

It staggers the imagination to think what Rand’s reaction would be to find, in the 21st century, that America has become an economic client of the world’s largest collective state.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.