Rand, Ryan and the Rest of Us

Laura Hollis

8/20/2012 12:38:00 PM - Laura Hollis
Public awareness of Rep. Paul Ryan’s familiarity with (and apparent fondness for) the works of Ayn Rand has now seeped into the academy. The Chronicle of Higher Education features an essay today by Professor Alan Wolfe, Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. This is an edited version of my response to Professor Wolfe in the article’s comments section.

There are any number of intellectual errors in both Professor Wolfe’s piece and in the comments that follow, and they can be summed up thusly: we read the writings of all sorts of people whose personal lives were a shambles, whose writing styles were (shall we say) distinctive, and whose philosophies were extreme, but who nevertheless managed to identify powerful truths.

I cannot speak for Paul Ryan. But since I fully expect the national conversation about this topic to contain the same deceit and reach the same fever pitch that Medicare and Mitt Romney’s dog have, I can speak for myself, and perhaps shed some light on the subject for anyone who has not read Rand.

First, as one who has also read all of Ayn Rand's novels, my conclusion is that she was, at best, a mediocre writer - speaking stylistically. Her grasp of conversation - even the names she chose for her characters - seemed to be clunky, gutteral ("Dagny"?), and contrived ("Wesley Mouch"). That said, the same folks who disdain Rand herald “Wall Street" as a pantheon of overarching truth about business, despite the eye-rolling lack of subtlety in the name of its notorious antagonist ("Gordon Gekko"). Obviousness is obviousness, notwithstanding the political perspective of the writer.

Second, I am well aware of Rand’s personal life, which was not salutory. Indeed, Rand's unusual take on male-female sexuality consistently played out in her novels in discomfiting ways. Despite - or perhaps because of (in her view) - their "strong" personalities, her female protagonists all seem to have a rape, bondage, and/or submission fetish, and are incapable of forming deep emotional attachments to men, confusing domination with love, infidelity with independence, and submission with respect. Even her strident professions of atheism seemed overwrought and unnecessary - and the number of persons of religious faith who find her economic, political and cultural observations enlightening only shores up this point.

Rand's beef with belief in God (and she focused primarily on Christianity) was that it demanded self-sacrifice - something she viewed as the penultimate sin and betrayal of humanity. But she never gave the beliefs of Christians (she was a Jew) or other faiths the same intense study that she gave other human philosophies and behaviors, nor did she explore facets of self-sacrifice that were actually born of love. Instead, she clung to shallow, two-dimensional stereotypes to prove her point. (Some would say here that all of her characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, and I am inclined to agree.) Just because you can point to one person whose cramped belief in God belies a shriveled, sociopathic view of the world does not mean that belief in God demands a shriveled, sociopathic view of the world. Furthermore, just as an athlete training for the Olympics (to find a timely analogy) pushes through pain, sacrifice and what seems very much like suffering to reach triumph, so too does *healthy* self-sacrifice in the Christian tradition peel away stunted layers of self-absorption and push individuals to a fuller understanding of themselves, greater accomplishments as individuals, and greater love for themselves AND others.

But - and it is an important "but" - neither Rand's stilted delivery, nor her deep-seated sexual pathologies, nor even her mischaracterization of Christianity takes away from some essential truths that she identifies and catalogs in her novels, with some powerful success. One must remember that she fled the Soviet Union, having seen firsthand and suffered through the privations and depravities thrust upon the population by the ideologues who controlled it - slavish adherents of collectivism. She knew that at its core, this was a completely renunciation of any value of the individual, except as a part of the state. (This, too, betrays her ignorance of Christianity, since it proclaims each and every individual as precious and invaluable, made in the image and likeness of God.)

Rand celebrated selfish individualism as a reaction against collectivism in all its forms and the widespread misery and destruction of life it caused, not only in the Soviet Union, but in Communist China, Cuba, North Vietnam, North Korea, and Cambodia - all of which she lived to see, and all of which only served to reinforce her perspective. Given the starvation, political persecution, imprisonment, and death that Communism has brought everywhere it was implemented, one can hardly blame her.

Rand resonates with people now because she sounded the clarion call against all collectivist philosophies which would subordinate the individual to the state, and which - of necessity - denounce individual achievement and accomplishment as "greedy," or "selfish" as justification for doing so. The United States is the most prosperous country in the history of the world, and Americans are the most generous when viewed by any standard of philanthropy: the donation of money or time, or the creation of foundations and other charitable organizations. And yet, with each passing day we hear the steady drumbeat of denunciations of all business as "greedy," "exploitative," "corrupt." Regrettably, the fountainhead ( yes ) of this viewpoint is the president of the United States whose views about business are well- known to anyone who has bothered to read his works or (more importantly) the works of those who inspired him. This reached its recent apotheosis in the president's statement in Roanoke, Virginia last month: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

For those of us who know how businesses are *really* built, and who entrepreneurs *really" are – and Rep. Paul Ryan is among them -- this is not only the consummate insult, but a statement of staggering ignorance. We now live in a Bizarro-world society where certain social scientists and politicians would have us believe that huge swaths of the population cannot be held responsible for their own poor choices, but those of us who do not make those choices are at fault and will be forced to pay for them, not as charity, but by claim of right. Taxation is no longer cast as the contributions which are made to support civil society, but as reparations for blame. And yet, ironically, those among us who devote their lives and everything they own to building successful businesses that provide employment for millions of people, as well as goods and services that have created the highest standard of living in the history of the planet are not responsible for the fruits of their own work, but faceless strangers who never donated a dime or lift a finger to build those businesses are given the credit.

Rand is celebrated not because she was a great writer, but because she understood human nature and its relationship to political power. She understood that humans who celebrate government as God eventually act as if they have God's power. Her reaction was to reject the idea of God altogether. But many of us who believe in God have no difficulty separating her decision from our own. We simply acknowledge that no human is God and no human institution will deliver utopia. We study history and realize that a government which downplays or demonizes individual achievement, and excuses and subsidizes human failings under the guise of calling for higher and higher taxes will eventually be filled with a population which achieves little and expects much - all to be paid for on the backs of the shrinking numbers of people who still seek to accomplish something. Furthermore, it will be a system where power is held not at the level of individuals, families, communities - where it is most responsive, most diffused and least dangerous - but in the hands of a few whose primary contributions to society are their powers to take from some and distribute to others. At best, it is a system designed for financial collapse. At worst, it is a pathway to societal collapse.

Either way, we do not want it. And those of us who find value in Ayn Rand’s works understand that for all her faults, Rand foresaw it.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Professor Wolfe tosses off a gratuitous insult at the end of his essay. As he is the director of a center devoted to the study of religion and American public life, one would think he would be slightly less condescending. I am not sure what he means by "creationism," but if by that he is referring to the 70 - 80% of Americans who believe in God (and who, by extension, believe that God created everything in some form or another), I am very curious what the focus of his Center is. Because he makes it sound as if the study of those who believe in God is like studying an inferior form of life.

Perhaps he has more in common with Ms. Rand than he admits.