I’ve started the book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, which is a bio of Ayn Rand. The book focuses on her intellectual influence rather than her artistic influence because, as Burns notes, Rand’s artistic influence is non-existent. Mostly, the people who like her books don’t read for pleasure but as a political exercise.
Burns uses new papers largely unavailable to previous researchers to write the book, and she attempts neutrality. As a researcher who is looking to contextualize Rand’s work into Rand’s life, neutrality is desirable. But, in the end, I have trouble getting behind it.
Rand has fascinated me for years. When I was a teenager, I read Atlas Shrugged for the first time. At the time, I was pretty conservative, but since Rand’s writing didn’t grip me (I was, and am, more interested in art than politics, though I also believe all work is political), I wasn’t taken by the ideas. They are clumsy exposition inserted into these psychologically weird and unbelievable people.
It wasn’t until I learned this supposed champion of individual freedom testified in front of the House Un-Americans Committee that I thought, “What the FUCK?”
It was a disconnect that I still can’t grasp in my heart, no matter how well my mind understands her. Rand championed freedom, she detested government exercise of authority, except when it came to using the US government to attack people’s political beliefs.
It. Made. No. Sense.
Later, I would come to understand that what drove Rand wasn’t “reason” or any coherent political belief, but merely a hatred of communism so intense that she branded everything she saw in relation to, or against, the demons in her mind. So the Keynesian economics of Franklin Roosevelt was transformed by the alchemy of her hatred into Stalinist communism. America – which had never known a tyranny such as existed under the czars, which was always a technologically advanced and prosperous nation in ways that Russia never was – became a budding USSR.
(These themes, of course, are still present in the American right. Every liberal is secretly a communist in defiance of all reason and evidence.)
Even when I came to that understanding, however, I was still baffled. She had written so much, and so passionately, about the merits of individual expression and the tyranny of the state that her attempts to use state coercion to violate freedom of expression convinced me of her hypocrisy. Her beliefs weren’t coherent. They were wildly at odds with her actions.
The more I learned about her, the more this became true – she was a tinpot tyrant, lording over a closed group of friends, in near total isolation. To the extent that she engaged the outside world, it was to attack her detractors. Her belief in individualism contained within it a profound contempt for the “masses.” In her elitism, she was absolute, explicitly and overtly aristocratic – in the sense that she felt qualified to judge people’s worth against the yardstick of her “philosophy.” Additionally, she was a homophobic misogynist racist.
Which makes it hard for me to take anyone’s attempt to make a “balanced” narrative about Rand very seriously. It is, and I think this is true, balanced to say that she was a giant hypocrite. She did believe in state intervention, by only towards targets she hated. She absolutely did believe in collective action (indeed, Atlas Shrugged is about collective action, a farcical strike of the owners – which is unprecedented in human history because the owners know if they strike . . . well, I guess you’ll have to read Atlas Stumbled to see my opinion about THAT), if the people collectively acting agreed with her ideals. She made broad principles that she violated at every turn, in her philosophy, in her fiction, in her life. This was in addition to being an terrible person: elitist, homophobic, misogynistic, racist.
Still, for purposes of my research, “neutrality” and “balance” is likely to be useful – though not altogether true.