The Zombie Allure of Ayn Rand’s Empty Literature and Philosophy
Citing Rand is the academic equivalent to citing Wikipedia or the dictionary in an essay for your first-year composition course.
Social media didn’t create it, but social media are the perfect platforms for recording a disturbing fact about the zombie ideas that just will not die in the U.S. Case in point is that Ayn Rand is trending because NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed to her Atlas Shrugged on his book shelf.
Rand is a favorite of conservatives, especially among those embracing libertarianism, but Rand represents the consequences of the right’s anti-intellectualism that leaves Republicans and conservatives ignorant of the academics they shun and shame.
A snapshot of the problem occurred often on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program when he periodically praised “Ann” Rand — a grotesque moment that implied Limbaugh never read any of her work but felt compelled to use her as the dog whistle Rand has been reduced to (if her low-form literature and philosophy could be taken any lower).
Many people have noted that a large number of conservative thinkers and political leaders never attended or dropped out of college. Using Rand to signal a literary and ideological basis for yourself is actually a much different sort of signaling than conservatives realize since they have no or little experience with academia (note that there is plenty worth criticizing about academia and academics).
Citing Rand is the academic equivalent to citing Wikipedia or the dictionary in an essay for your first-year composition course: You just told your professor something you would have preferred to keep secret.
None the less, Ayn Rand has achieved a unique distinction; she is recognized as not being worthy of consideration in two major fields, literature and philosophy. Virtually no one in either field takes her work seriously even as both flourish among adolescent readers and limited political leaders.
That noted, she likely has another distinction also; her work’s enduring popularity prove that “popular” and “enduring” do not necessarily equal “good” or “credible.”
Rand’s enduring popularity in the U.S. among conservatives does highlight the internal lack of logic and self-defeating power of embracing uncritically a simplistic ideology. Rand’s rugged individualism seems to mask her militant atheism and sexual politics for Christian conservatives.
Rand’s popularity is a subset, of course, of the allure of the libertarian lie, the American Dream built on the argument that anyone can succeed with the right effort (and the inverse that failure is your own damn fault).
Let me recommend the Rand reader below, but I want to highlight a few points here.
First, I want to stress that while many of us on the left are quick to criticize Rand’s work, we are not advocating for legislation to ban her books in U.S. schools or libraries, and none of us are calling for Rand book burnings (except for a cheeky comment in a letter by Flannery O’Connor decades ago). Please note that Rodger’s glee over having Rand on his book shelf is occurring while Republicans are banning books they dislike, and some are calling for book burnings.
The Left believes in refuting and confronting bad ideas; the Right believes in censorship, using the government to control what people can read (not very Randian).
Finally, I want to emphasize just what people are endorsing when they point to Ayn Rand.
As noted by Skye C. Cleary, Rand endorses a caustic victim blaming:
It’s easy to criticise Rand’s ideas. They’re so extreme that to many they read as parody. For example, Rand victim-blames: if someone doesn’t have money or power, it’s her own fault. Howard Roark, the ‘hero’ of The Fountainhead, rapes the heroine Dominique Francon. A couple of awkward conversations about repairing a fireplace is, according to Rand, tantamount to Francon issuing Roark ‘an engraved invitation’ to rape her. The encounter is clearly nonconsensual — Francon genuinely resists and Roark unmistakably forces himself upon her — and yet Rand implies that rape survivors, not the rapists, are responsible. Might makes right and, as Roark states earlier in the novel, the point isn’t who is going to let him do whatever he wants: ‘The point is, who will stop me?’ Rand’s championing of selfishness, and her callousness to the unfortunate, finds echoes in contemporary politics. It would not be stretching a point to say that her philosophy has encouraged some politicians to ignore and blame the poor and powerless for their condition.
Ultimately, the problem is not the zombie allure of Rand, but the people to whom she speaks; Masha Gessen concludes:
And, of course, the spirit of Ayn Rand haunts the White House. Many of Donald Trump’s associates, including the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have paid homage to her ideas, and the President himself has praised her novel “The Fountainhead.” (Trump apparently identifies with its architect hero, Howard Roark, who blows up a housing project he has designed for being insufficiently perfect.) Their version of Randism is stripped of all the elements that might account for my inability to throw out those books: the pretense of intellectualism, the militant atheism, and the explicit advocacy of sexual freedom. From all that Rand offered, these men have taken only the worst: the cruelty. They are not even optimistic. They are just plain mean.
A final irony of Rand is that below I offer a reader by thoughtful people writing about why you are likely wasting your time reading Rand — and risking your soul if you do read her novels as how-to manuals for your life.
Keep in mind that taking sides on Rand is simply this: Rand believes mean people rock, and those of us rejecting Rand know mean people suck.
‘Atlas Shrugged’ free books and essay contest, plus other inducements (A good overview of why Rand’s novels being popular and enduring is a problem)