The Ayn Rand Makeover

I have an old friend who identifies his political orientation as "rational conservative." I can see why he insists on the modifier. These days being a hardcore, unmodified conservative keeps getting more difficult.

It's no longer enough simply to believe that private initiatives are better than government ones or that traditional cultural practices are usually better than their modern challengers. For the past decade, the true conservative has also been required to believe that the melting of polar ice is a benign natural phenomenon and that the notion that the Earth is only 6,000 years old deserves to be called science. In the last two years, the credulity bar got higher and aspiring conservatives had to believe it was at least possible that the election of President Obama was the result of a conspiracy, hatched 50 years ago, to place a Kenyan-born African socialist in America’s White House.

But life just got even harder for our friends on the Right. Now, apparently, a true conservative must also believe that the late Ayn Rand was a great philosopher.

Anyone who has so far managed to avoid Rand's work or her disciples should know that in her novels and essays Rand expounded a worldview, dubbed "Objectivism," that can be summed up as a pastiche of free-market libertarianism and cartoon Nietzscheanism. To the Randian, there is no God but self, and self-will and pursuit of self-interest is the only virtue.

From her death in 1982 until the rise of the tea parties in 2009, Rand's star was eclipsed on the Right by the strength of religious conservatism, but not anymore. Posters bearing Rand’s image are a staple at tea party rallies. Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the House Republican budget plan, says Rand inspired him to enter politics. A film version of Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was released on April 15 this year. After decades in Hollywood development limbo, the film (optimistically subtitled Part 1) was rushed into production last year by right-wing businessman John Aglialoro, who poured in millions of his own dollars to make it happen.

But there's nothing new about Rand’s presence at the edges of the entertainment world. She was mostly a pop-culture figure in her own lifetime. She started as a screenwriter. In 1949, her earliest best-selling novel, The Fountainhead, became a big Hollywood movie, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Rand herself wrote the script. In the ensuing period that spanned the careers of Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater and saw the rise of Ronald Reagan, Rand, an émigré from Bolshevik Russia, cast a large shadow over the fanatically anti-communist Right.

What’s new in today's Randophilia is the claim that her philosophy constitutes a serious intellectual contribution to the history of Western thought. This mainstreaming of Rand is, in large part, the work of one man, John Allison IV, recently retired CEO of the giant national bank BB&T. Allison is a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist who required his top managers to read Atlas Shrugged as a condition of employment. Now, through the BB&T Foundation, he has rained down millions in grant money upon 25 colleges and universities with the condition that money be used to support business courses in which works by Ayn Rand are required reading. Schools ranging from Marshall University and the University of Louisville to the University of Texas-Austin, Duke, and even Quaker-founded Guilford College have gladly taken the money and drunk the Objectivist Kool-Aid.

If you think the rampant amorality and speculative excess that characterized financial markets pre-2008 was bad, just wait until a new Rand-indoctrinated generation of businesspeople hits the scene, convinced not only that greed is good, but that it is the only good.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. His novel White Boy was recently published by Apprentice House.

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