You’re a tourist in Manhattan, New York City. Hungry after a grueling but fun morning filled with intimidating subway rides, awesome sights and suffering a stiff neck from all that looking up at those big buildings, you decide that lunch at the world famous Carnegie Deli would hit just the right spot. After locating a cabbie who actually knows his way around the city, you are deposited in front of your gastronomical destination. However, as you approach the front door you are met with a sight which stops you dead in your tracks; in bold letters on the Deli’s front door, a sign reads “CARNEGIE DELI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO NON-JEWS”.** You close your eyes and shake your head, believing you are hallucinating, yet the sign remains. You’re not dreaming, you’ve just entered America, as Rand Paul would have it.
Ultra-conservative Kentucky Republican Senatorial candidate Dr. Rand Paul, son of ultra-conservative Texas Congressman and 2008 Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul, created a firestorm this week when he criticized aspects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which deal with discrimination by private businesses. Paul claims that he “abhors” racism but worries about any infringement upon constitutional “freedom of speech” as it relates to racial discrimination. Liberals might be skeptical of a southern, uber-conservative’s commitment to abolishing racism but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Rand Paul has expressed these concerns about curbing the right of business owners to refuse anyone their services several times in recent years. Although he admits that the federal courts have settled the constitutional issue, it apparently continues to nag at his conscience. If we take him at his word, Dr. Paul’s problem is not so much blatant racism as a belief in preferential treatment under the constitution. He clearly values the constitutional rights of a racist private business owner far more than the similar protections afforded to the customers whom the hypothetical owner would reject.
Paul has also criticized the 1968 Voting Rights Act, which prevented southern states from systematically denying blacks the right to vote (some states and conservative activist groups still engage in finding loopholes to this law). He has unequivocally stated his desire to repeal the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by George W Bush’s father, as well. What is the source of Paul’s preference for the rights of business owners over those of their customers? Is he merely seeking justification for racism? I would suggest that he is reflecting the views of devout worshippers at the Church of Rand. No, I am not saying that Paul literally worships himself, although that theme is not entirely inaccurate in describing this particular faith.
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in Russia in 1905. Raised in St. Petersburg, her life was negatively impacted by the Communist Revolution. First, her father’s business was confiscated by the government. Later, she was nearly ejected from college, close to graduation, because she was a non-communist. In 1926, Rand left Russia on a visa to visit American relatives, she would never return. She went on to author several fictional stories espousing her personal philosophy, which she called Objectivism. Her entire life’s work, in fact, can be seen as an overdramatic reaction to the unhappiness of her youth in Communist Russia.
Objectivism could well be defined as self determination on steroids. It is an ideology in which intellectual reason is the only God, the individual is his or her own savior and “rational self-interest” is the ultimate moral code. This philosophy naturally aligned itself with conservative belief in unregulated capitalism. Though this alliance was originally secondary to Ms. Rand, she eventually embraced the political implications of her philosophy and founded the sarcastically named “Collective”, a small group of devoted Objectivists and Laissez-Faire Capitalists, including future Fed Chairman *Alan Greenspan. The Collective became the rock upon which the Church of Rand has been built.
The repetitive theme in all of Ayn Rand’s work is the tyranny of the mundane masses over a unique protagonist. The problem with her body of work becoming an inspiration for real world political activism lies in its common delivery method, heavy handed hyperbole. The collectivist worlds which Ayn Rand paints for us do not and probably never could actually exist. They are the paranoid overreactions of a soul bent on vengeance against unseen forces that caused personal tragedy in its youth. One only need witness the tortured performances of legendary actors Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in the film version of Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, as they grasp for realism amongst unbelievable character motivations and overdramatic dialogue, to understand the foolishness of basing real world ideas upon her work.
I was introduced to Rand at an early age, through the Canadian rock band Rush. Rush’s drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, became a fan of Rand’s work in the 1970’s, acknowledging her in the credits for the band’s 1976 album 2112, which was based on Rand’s novella “Anthem”. In ‘78, Peart penned an allegorical statement of Rand’s ideas entitled The Trees. The trees in Rush’s forest were in crisis. The Maples resented how the Oaks stood much taller and therefore got all of the sunlight. Ultimately, the Maples “formed a union and demanded equal rights” and “the trees were all kept equal, by hatchet, axe and saw”. It is a cautionary tale no doubt but one which is no more realistic than Rand’s collectivist worlds.
In his 2005 book about Rush’s 30th Anniversary Tour, “Roadshow; Landscape with Drums”, Peart effectively rebukes criticism of both he and Rush as a “right wing band”, dismissing his earlier work as only one in a myriad of lyrical themes he has explored. I, like Neil Peart, have an appreciation of Ayn Rand’s ideas but stop well short of worshipping at the Church of Rand. Not far away from here on blogspot, an author whose pen name is John Galt (the central character of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged”), on a blog titled “Robbing America”, engages in weekly rants against Barack Obama, Democrats in general and uses Ayn Rand’s words to warn us against liberal “Statism”. This blogger’s entire worldview expresses how the work of an early 20th century author has gradually morphed into first a political ideology and ultimately, a church capable of remarkable zealotry.
I call it the “Church of Rand” for two main reasons; first, because those who follow this ideology share much in common with their theological equals and, second, because it would surely piss off the extremely atheist Rand, the church’s chief prophet. The commonality between Rand’s church and religious ones is its emphasis on beliefs over facts and results. The personal practice of Objectivism, in which every individual would essentially be an island unto themselves, would doom otherwise good people to a world of chaotic discord. The political practice of Rand’s ideas, via the Reagan Revolution and right wing domination of the last thirty years, have resulted in massive debt, industrial erosion, falling incomes, rising unemployment, environmental disasters, criminal greed in the financial sector, reduced quality of life and a growing pessimism that America’s brightest days are behind her. In modern America, it is the mighty Oaks who have instead taken "hatchet, axe and saw" to the humble Maples.
Despite this record of miserable failure, conservatives maintain that more of their Ayn Rand-inspired ideology is the only solution for what ails us. If this does not mirror the religious tendency to place belief above facts, then I don’t know what does. When Rush Limbaugh entitled his ode to Rand’s political ideas “The Way Things Oughta Be”, he was proving my point for me. If “it’s just how things should be” is the most compelling case you can make for your idea, in light of overwhelming evidence that it simply doesn’t work, you have entered the realm of pseudo-religious faith and exited the very world of reason which was Ayn Rand’s preferred residence. You have built the Church of Rand and are groveling at its altar.
This is why it is so important for liberals to be familiar with Ayn Rand’s work. It was the motivation behind Ronald Reagan’s union busting. It’s why Republicans always seek corporate freedom above the public’s health and best interests. More currently, it’s why they fought tooth and nail against healthcare reform. It’s why they continue to bow and scrape at the feet of Wall Street’s more unscrupulous high-risk gamblers and the “too big to fail” bankers and insurance giants, even after the considerable damage such entities have wrought upon us all. It’s why a Senator from Alaska unashamedly tries to limit British Petroleum’s liability to less than 10% of a mess of BP’s own making, forcing taxpayers to foot the other 90-plus percent. It’s also why the new Republican Governor of New Jersey, facing a massive budget shortfall, has the audacity to propose cutting state taxes on people making over $400,000 per year while simultaneously eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit, thus raising taxes on residents who can barely feed their families. Without such understanding, one struggles to comprehend how Rand Paul could suggest that permitting institutional racism is preferable to government interference in such matters.
By all accounts, Ayn Rand’s personal life was an unhappy one, consisting of illicit affairs, chain smoking, drug abuse and mental illness characterized by dramatic mood swings. One former student of her ideology described Rand’s later life intellectual “Puritanism” in this way, “There was more than just a right kind of politics and a right kind of moral code. There was also a right kind of music, a right kind of art, a right kind of interior design, a right kind of dancing. There were wrong books which we should not buy, and right ones which we should ... And on everything, absolutely everything, one was constantly being judged, just as one was expected to be judging everything around him ... It was the perfect breeding ground for insecurity, fear, and paranoia.". Sounds an awful lot like the old Soviet Union which Rand had fled many years before. If objectivism could not even provide the basis of a happy existence for its creator, what hope is there for an entire country which seeks to follow her mantra to the letter?
The most glaring flaw in Rand’s philosophy can be illustrated by using one of her most cherished fictional creations. Howard Roark was a brilliant and uncompromising young architect and the imaginary protagonist of Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. But no matter how brilliant and edgy his designs might be, no matter how special an individual he was, in the real world he would still need scores of others to make his dreams a reality. Without a company and its stockholders willing to buy his remarkable design, engineers to insure that his designs would remain upright, without contractors to plan and execute the building project and, yes, without laborers (possibly union) to make the whole thing a physical reality, Roark would ultimately become nothing more than a madman, with delusions of grandeur, drawing pretty pictures on a notepad. Most of these other folks may lack the unique vision Roark possesses but without their valuable contributions, our architect doesn’t amount to very much in the real world. Rand conveniently overlooks this reality in her heavy handed and contrived little stories. To her, such folk are just leeches, hangers on, the unwashed masses or worse, the mud under foot, as she charmingly described them in “We The Living”.
There is one more way in which the Rand right wing resembles a religion more than rational thinkers; it is in how they see those of us who disagree with their ideas on life and the marketplace. “We The Liberals”, are the great Satan of the Church of Rand. We are the “Statists”, the “Collectivists” or in the view of FOX News’s Glenn Beck, the “Marxist Democrats” who are “a cancer which must be removed from America”. We do not simply possess a different point of view; we are the real embodiment of Ayn Rand’s paranoid visions of a dystopian future, where all of society would be melted down to its lowest common denominator. We are to be destroyed in a life and death struggle for the sanctity of the individual mind. All of this is because we see intrinsic value in all human beings, not just the privileged or “special”. After all, the “masses” are just large amounts of…individuals. Who am I to say which individuals are more valuable than others?
I’d like to end this piece on a more positive note. All criticism aside, Ayn Rand’s story is surely a unique American success story. In what other country could an immigrant intellectualist, seen by her contemporary writers as a limited, one-trick pony author and by her intellectual peers as a philosophical hack, go down in history as the philosophical godmother of one of the most powerful political movements in human history? As another Russian-American philosopher, one whose ideas were of equal merit, once observed, “What a Country”?!
* In testifying before Congress in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, even Mr. Greenspan, one of Rand’s most devoted fans, was forced to admit that the kind of unfettered capitalism which he had worshipped for decades had failed in practical reality.
** My apologies to the proprietors of New York’s Carnegie Deli. Whom I am certain would never institute the kind of policy I use as an example in my opening paragraph.
## - A disclaimer - while I connect author Ayn Rand and politician Rand Paul by their common names, it should be noted that Paul has publicly denied that Ayn is his namesake. His full name is Randall, although one might speculate at his choice of abbreviations considering that both he and his father are ardent fans of Ayn Rand’s work.
Paul Roth, Jr.