With the announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate this week, the philosophies of author Ayn Rand are once again part of the political discourse. In this piece that originally ran in 2008, Brooke looks at the enduring legacy of the original Objectivist.
Big Star - Oh My Soul
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as we heard, with the announcement that Paul Ryan would be the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee, Ayn Rand was back in the news. Though Rand has been dead for 30 years, the political philosophy she espoused in her novels, plays and screenplays lives on. And, as we observed in this piece I reported a few years ago, nothing makes a philosophical argument go down more smoothly than when it’s embodied by Gary Cooper, who played the iconic classed architect Howard Roark in a film version of “The Fountainhead.”
GARY COOPER AS HOWARD ROARK: If you want my work you must take it as it is or not at all.
MAN: Do you wish to defy our common standards?
HOWARD ROARK: I set my own standards.
MAN: Do you intend to fight against the whole world?
HOWARD ROARK: If necessary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Unless Gary Cooper fails to appeal to the kids these days, there’s a concerted effort to reach the kids where they are, in school. For years, John A. Allison led that effort.
JOHN A. ALLISON: My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged, which is the best defense, I believe, of capitalism ever written.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Atlas Shrugged, of course, is Rand’s apocalyptic doorstop of a novel that depicts an intrusive government that forces creators to flee.
For almost 40 years, Allison was the head of a very large bank, BB&T, which offered generous grants to colleges and universities that agreed to teach Atlas Shrugged. Since 2005, it's given million of dollars to nearly 70 institutions of higher learning for the study of Rand's philosophy, called Objectivism.
Some academics don't like the conflict of interest that this arrangement represents but Objectivists say it's perfectly reasonable. It certainly wouldn't have bothered Rand.
AYN RAND: I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality, which has so far been believed impossible, namely, a morality not based on faith, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict but on reason, morality which can be proved by means of logic.
NICK GILLESPIE: Let's put it this way: Ayn Rand's work, I think, is popular for the same reason Prometheus has always been popular with humans. It's about somebody who dares to struggle against great odds and, you know, steals fire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nick Gillespie is the editor of Reason.com and ReasonTV and former editor of Reason magazine, a Libertarian journal whose name is a nod to Rand's favorite word, reason, above all, reason above conventional pieties, reason above religion, above especially collectivist societies and command economies, the horrors of which she witnessed as a child in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, reason that finds its purest expression in capitalism.
NICK GILLESPIE: Virtually every CEO of every major company will list Ayn Rand as a major influence. A bevy of Hollywood stars, ranging from Brad Pitt to Angelina Jolie to Vince Vaughn. A director like Oliver Stone, who is fond of Castro, says that Ayn Rand is one of the most important figures in his intellectual life. Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Hugh Hefner, I mean, the reach of this author is pretty astonishing. She gives egoists a positive case for why the world should revolve around them and around their efforts. If you are the person who is creating value, if you are the star, the sun really does revolve around you. And not only should it be that way, but that's the moral order of the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ayn Rand's philosophy was fundamentally selfish. Respond.
JEFFREY BRITTING: Ayn Rand's philosophy is fundamentally [LAUGHING] reality oriented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeffrey Britting is the archivist of the Ayn Rand Institute and associate producer of the documentary, “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life.”
JEFFREY BRITTING: Human beings live their own life. Human beings implement their own thinking. They pursue their own happiness. That's ultimately a very selfish act. And that's a virtue, in her opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ayn Rand thinks that people who raise money for other people or provide services for other people in an organized way are weak and deluded.
JEFFREY BRITTING: Absolutely not. That is a flat-out distortion of Ayn Rand from A to Z. And if you wish to see the evidence for that, please consult her novels and please consult her views on charity and please consult her views on scholarships and please consult her views on friendship and gift-giving and Christmas and good cheer.
PHIL DONAHUE: You don't like altruists.
AYN RAND: I disapprove of them. I regard them as evil.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Phil Donahue interviewed Rand in 1980.
PHIL DONAHUE: What's bad about the person who wants to help other people?
AYN RAND: To begin with, that's the big mistake. People can want to help other people, properly and with very good reasons, but that isn't altruism. Altruism doesn't mean merely helping people. It means sacrificing yourself to others, placing the interests of others above your own. It's the self-sacrificing person who is an altruist.
PHIL DONAHUE: And what's wrong with that?
AYN RAND: What's wrong with committing suicide? What's wrong with giving up life? And why is the happiness of another person important and good but not your own?
ALGIS VALIUNAS: Although she professed to live this life of reason, she herself lived a, a life of turbulent unreason.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Algis Valiunas is contributing editor at The New Atlantis.
ALGIS VALIUNAS: She had an affair, when she was 49, with an acolyte of hers, a married man who was 25 years younger than she. She expected her husband and his wife to simply accept this affair as the perfectly reasonable thing to do. And for 12 years, they spent a couple of afternoons in her bedroom each week, while slowly her lover's marriage dissolved and her husband became a virtual alcoholic. And when she was 61, her lover Nathaniel Branden dumped her for a younger woman and she went crazy. All this, this vaunted reason of hers, went right out the window.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Her lover's act, though cold, was perfectly rational.
ALGIS VALIUNAS: She thought that if individuals wished to show compassion, they could do so but they were under no obligation to do so. And, for the most part, she looked on compassion as something morally slovenly, a concession that the strong made to the weak, at the expense of their own excellence. She writes about compassion in “The Fountainhead” as what you feel when you see a caterpillar squashed.
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RAYMOND MASSEY AS GAIL WYNAND: Self-sacrifice we drool as the ultimate virtue. Let's stop and think. Can a man sacrifice his integrity, his rights, his freedom, his convictions, the honesty of his feeling, the independence of his thought? These are a man's supreme possessions. It is the unsacrificed self that we must respect in man, above all, and where do we find it? In a man like Howard Roark.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It is the unsacrificed self that we must respect in man but not, perhaps, in woman.
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ALGIS VALIUNAS: At the center of “The Fountainhead” is a scene of what can only be called consensual rape, in which Dominique Francon, the heroine who is this masterful woman but a virginal one, is overcome by Howard Roark, in a scene of great passionate savagery.
[MUSIC/DOMINIQUE FRANCON CRYING]
AMY BENFER: She describes it as "the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had always wanted."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writer Amy Benfer.
AMY BENFER: I think one of the big problems one runs into quite early, if you're a woman reading an Ayn Rand novel, is that she sort of paradoxically believed that a woman's place was to find a hero and worship him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as a kid, Amy Benfer slid past that part and briefly became an Objectivist. She wrote a piece for In Character called “Randy Girls: Adolescent teenage girls love Ayn Rand.” Wonder why?
AMY BENFER: Like in fairy tales, there are very few mothers in these stories. Almost nobody has a mother. Also, none of her characters have children. The female characters are extremely unencumbered by domestic responsibilities. And I also think that the core idea of selfishness is sort of liberating to a teenage girl who is told that her noblest goal in life is to take care of other people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, that reminds me of a, of a scene from “The Simpsons” where Marge brings little Maggie into the Ayn Rand School for Tots.
JULIE KAVNER VOICING MARGE: Maggie likes a bottle of warm milk before nap time.
JON LOVITZ VOICING MS. SINCLAIR: A bottle? [LAUGHS] Mrs. Simpson, do you know what a baby's saying when she reaches for a bottle?
MS. SINCLAIR: She's saying, “I am a leech!” Our aim here is to develop the bottle within.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As research for her piece, Benfer wrote to book editors she knew, trolling for opinions about Rand.
AMY BENFER: One book editor wrote back to me and said, I avoided reading Ayn Rand until I was 22, And after I finished “The Fountainhead” I felt I had discovered something very important: Never date a boy who is reading “The Fountainhead.” [LAUGHS]
Another reply I received pointed me to a fake blurb on the back of Jon Stewart's recent book, “America (The Book),” attributed, falsely, of course, to Ayn Rand. And it reads, "This book is similar to my works in that anyone who reads it is sure to become an asshole for at least a month afterwards."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Nick Gillespie, of Reason, says he was never wowed by Rand's novels but that the attacks on them are often swipes by people who would rather not seriously engage her ideas.
NICK GILLESPIE: How many characters from Saul Bellow novels, how many characters from Don DeLillo novels, inarguably great writers, how many of them have penetrated the American cultural consciousness in the way that a Howard Roark or a John Gault has, to a degree where these are shorthands for an entire system of ideas? I think that that speaks pretty highly of her power as a writer.
She is a great author because she has a phenomenal audience, including a lot of people who go through a worshipful phase with her. And, you know, here we could be talking about Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve, as well as any number of pimply-faced adolescents who decide to grow beyond her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She put the individual front and center in life, and in death. Here she is two years before she died.
AYN RAND: What I've always thought was a sentence from some Greek philosopher – I don't, unfortunately, remember who it was – that I read at 16, and it's affected me all my life: “I will not die. It's the world that will end.” And that's absolutely true. And, you know, for me now, it should be a serious question because my time is fairly limited. And I have the same feeling, that I will enjoy life to the last moment, and when it's the end I don't have to worry about it; I'm not there. It's too bad that the world will end, and I think a very wonderful world will end with me.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a lot to be said for the consolation of philosophy.