Ayn Rand lives again, if only in the hearts and minds of Republican politicians and elements of the Tea Party movement.
Interestingly, though, in elevating the Russian-born author of two popular mid-20th century novels to the level of conservative sainthood, her new acolytes ignore a few of her core beliefs.
Her anti-communism? They give her a standing ovation there. Her anti-socialism? Check. Anti-welfare state? Check. Pro-individualism? Check. Pro-laissez-faire capitalism? Check. Her atheism? Uh-oh! Anti-libertarianism? Double uh-oh for the Tea Partiers! Abortion rights supporter? BOING!!!
As a youngster, I developed a passion for the classic movies serving as late-night TV fare back in the day. This passion led me to a late-1940s screen adaptation of Rand's The Fountainhead, which in turn led me to the novel. I found it sufficiently intriguing and provocative to read more than once.
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I can't say the same for Atlas Shrugged. Oh, the novel has an interesting premise: What would happen if the most productive titans of industry, the nation's leading capitalists, walked off the job at the same time? But this paean to laissez faire capitalism, a central element of Rand's Objectivist philosophy, proved to be dull, plodding and overly long by at least half.
Not surprisingly, it is Atlas Shrugged Republicans and Tea Partiers now worship with near-biblical reverence. Here again, her latest converts seem oddly selective in what they take away from the story.
When Atlas' mysterious John Galt seeks out those he wants to join him in a strike by capitalists (an oxymoron, I know), he chooses only the best and brightest capitalists — those whose talent, creativity and hard work lead to worthwhile outcomes.
They form the collective Atlas who, with a shrug of the shoulder, lets the world fall into collapse — a collapse that not only has dire consequences for a collectivist government and the masses who feed off of it, but also for those in the industrial world whose place at capitalism's table is earned by the work of others.
Such a consequence is consistent with laissez-faire capitalism. But it also demonstrates a point her new admirers apparently missed while focusing only on the overarching laissez-faire theme: Rand clearly believed the leeches of the world exist at all levels of society, including the "establishment."
Knowing this about Rand, could anyone doubt she would be repelled by Wall Street barons who enrich themselves through financial con games and then pay themselves bonuses in the multimillions after tanking the economy? Or by corporate CEOs who collect similar bonuses after driving their companies into bankruptcy?
Yet these are the very scavengers the current crop of Rand worshipers think should be free to do it all over again.
In The Fountainhead, a shorter and more readable paean to the individualism component of her Objectivist philosophy, Rand made it even clearer she knew the establishment has its leeches, too. Her Fountainhead villains, whether patently evil or merely fatally flawed, step right out of the establishment as each in his own way contributes to a collective attempt to crush the creativity and originality of architect Howard Roark.
Peter Keating, a classmate of Roark, builds a successful career as an architect not by creating anything of original value himself but by following along after the architectural establishment. When Roark designs a housing project and allows Keating to take credit for it under the condition no detail of the original design would be changed, Keating betrays Roark's trust by being pressured into making design changes.
Roark blows up the development while it's under construction, leading to a trial where he delivers Rand's defense of individualism.
Ellsworth Toohey, an egomaniacal socialist newspaper columnist/architecture critic, makes his own career by exploiting hatred and fear to destroy the careers of those he recognizes to be his superiors in creativity. He is most venomous in trying to bring about Roark's destruction.
Gail Wynand, the publisher of a newspaper devoted to "yellow journalism," admires and respects Roark's creativity and becomes the architect's friend. He initially defends Roark in the wake of the development's destruction, but turns on him to save his newspaper.
Put these characters in today's real world, and Keating might be a Wall Street minion who knew what his bosses were doing was wrong but stayed quiet while they tanked the economy.
Toohey, obviously, would be a leftist counterpart to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the other loudmouth fearmongers on the right.
It's tempting to liken Wynand to Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire includes the very unfair and very unbalanced Fox News, except for one thing. Wynand's character had a soul capable of appreciating creativity, beauty and truth but sold it to save his media holdings.
Whether the Rupert Murdochs of the world have souls capable of appreciating anything other than the bottom line is a question I can't answer.