5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Ayn Rand

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Each generation appropriates its political heroes in its own way, in its own manner and for its own protections or advantages, regardless of whether the canonized in question would agree with each and every aspect of the philosophy for which their lives and legacies are invoked.

A good example, I would argue, is rapidly becoming Ronald Reagan. It’s impossible to conjure up a more worshiped apostle of the right-wing, especially among the current crop of radical-right conservatives who would, without giving it a second thought, hurtle the U.S. toward rack and ruin with their fetish for oligarchy, religious extremism and racism masked as anti-government rhetoric.

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But I’m not sure to what degree Reagan really was, at his core, an oligarch, religious extremist or racist.

I think he was more mercenary than that.

Don’t get me wrong: Reagan’s political philosophy was and shall forever be repugnant to progressives. His reluctance to so much as utter the word “AIDS” for most of his term hastened the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, and, I would add, allowed a epidemic of terrifyingly medieval proportions to imperil the world (as it still does today).

But for as much faith as Reagan unquestionably placed in the essential goodness and moral virtue of capitalism, I have difficulty believing that his administration’s reaction to the oil mess in the gulf of Mexico would be wildly unlike that of President Obama. Or at least I don’t think Reagan would have been as reflexively and slavishly defensive of BP as, say, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). I think Reagan would have called Margaret Thatcher and the gesture of a $20 billion cleanup fund would have magically come from BP itself, not from a nudge from the government. Liberals would have screamed that the figure was too low, and it is too low, but BP’s corporate responsibility would have been made clear.

Reagan famously prattled on about life beginning at conception, and heaven knows he talked a good game to the right-to-life crowd — to the misogynistic anti-choicers who, should they ever manage to wield full power again in this nation, would probably try and repeal the Nineteenth Amendment while they were at it. But Reagan also knew that, even at the palpable zenith of his power, an anti-choice amendment to the U.S. constitution was — and is — politically untenable. A constitutional amendment to balance the budget could get through much more quickly — and even the radical-right Republicans know that there are good reason we shouldn’t go down that road.

And despite Reagan’s infamous use of the code words “states rights” in a speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980 — one of the ugliest bruises to the cause of civil rights in American history — I don’t know that Reagan’s goal (unlike that of the current candidate for U.S. Senate from Kentucky, the radical-right Republican Rand Paul) was necessarily to repeal the Civil Rights Act. Gut it, maybe. Repeal it, no. Indeed, Reagan would never have added to the Act, but he didn’t expend much political capital to destroy it, either. In short, Reagan was no progressive and no centrist, but he did understand that political philosophies have limits — and, equally important, that the U.S. traditionally veers to its natural center, that it wants to reject both extreme left and right as unhelpful to its great trajectory across time.

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The radical-right’s use of Reagan is in fashion now more than ever. A dead pope, they still kiss his ring and memorialize his speeches as it they were conservative encyclicals, which perhaps several really were. As time passes, though, the distance between what the radical-right believes — or wants the movement to believe — about Reagan and the evidence as it pertains to Reagan himself grows ever wider. The same cannot be said, however, about Ayn Rand, who is the real conservative avatar for the ages who is the real threat to progressive values.

For the radical right needn’t appropriate Rand’s work, her Objectivist philosophy or her life to gain political advantage; her work, philosophy and life is the very definition of the radical right. Her belief that everyone must be in it solely for themselves — that no person, no entity, no authority should have any obligation or responsibility to anyone else beyond one’s own betterment — is so tied to Rand’s landmark novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged that the idea of appreciating her work as literature, as culture, is almost counter-intuitive. The novels may or may not signify great writing but are certainly unequaled articulations of a particular political philosophy. Rand’s minor works, then, are either minor because they lack greatness as literature or because they lack salvos for political discourse.

We will soon learn which category, if either, a Rand play called Ideal fits into — and whether it has the potential to be appropriated as part of the radical-right’s ongoing jihad against the progressives.

As part of the Americas Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters, producers Karina Martins and Drew Vanderberg, in association with FGP NYC, Inc., are mounting the play, which is making its New York City debut. The plot intrigues: “The world’s most famous actress is accused of murder. Six devoted fans are challenged to stand by their idol in her time of greatest need. How much will they sacrifice to protect the ideal they profess to love?”

Ideal is directed by Jenny Beth Snyder; the cast features Elizabeth Alderfer, Jessie Barr, Ted Caine, Bill Griffin, Sean Ireland, Lee Kasper, Emily Marrow, Cara Massey, Dan Pfau, Kim Rosen, Ariana Spiegel, Caryl Walsh and Andrew Young. Interesting theater artists all.

But frankly, it was the long-distance offer from the production to offer up Rand, who died in 1982, for an interview that I just couldn’t resist.

Ideal runs June 23 through July 3 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.); for information and tickets, call 212-279-4200 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Ayn Rand has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“In all of your books, there is a love interest — a ravishing, even of the female protagonist. It seems that love or relationships are a high priority. In a system that’s based on work, where does love fit in? How can one love another if his only focus is himself and work? Can one actually attain the highest version on oneself without seeing his reflection in another?”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I’ve actually been asked before if all of my lead female characters are me. It’s absurd. They are characters. Of course, I’m in my work — but who isn’t?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
If one’s rational mind is what sets us aside as gods on this earth — if there were to be aliens that landed, and they were more intelligent, more work driven, more self enlightened, would you then reevaluate your political thought?

Andrew Young and Elizabeth Alderfer in Ayn Rand's "Ideal." Photo: Avery McCarthy.

4) With so much popular and critical attention on your famous novels, how do you ensure that Ideal won’t be seen as some sort of curiosity? What clues have you embedded in the play relating to your formulation of Objectivism?
I see the world in one way, and that’s how I write. The words come from me, and therefore I don’t see how qualifying one as a curiosity against the other is even beneficial. Kay Gonda is a character that encounters different lenses in which the world is blinded. She attempts to find her other, her echo through the world’s existing haze of self denial. The whole play is the process in formulating a thesis — a living thesis. Writing a play, specifically, allows for the imagination to think again — it’s not shown to you, it’s suggested. The mind will look at something differently in different mediums, experience things in different mediums, and find itself renewed. The play is the means to formulating Objectivism. I just didn’t know it then, as I hadn’t solidified objectivist thought until years later. It was one of the first things I wrote in English.

5) How do want your play to “play” — dramatically and theatrically? What do you think was your biggest flaw as a playwright? How can the director, Jenny Beth Snyder, help you compensate for that flaw?
I think my fascination with the cinema filtered into this work and the episodic nature lends this play to require lots of location changes and filler characters that would possibly be better executed in a film. I think Ms. Snyder can find ways to theatricalize these demands that might better tell the story. The actors and the design will do these words justice. It’s not a novel or a film. It’s a play and, like all plays, they can only be fully appreciated when produced.

Bonus question:

6) How does it feel knowing that you have so profoundly influenced the American right-wing that we now have Senate candidates flirting with racism and openly questioning the appropriateness of the Civil Rights Act?
Anything, ideology or otherwise, that has a lasting impact on culture can be construed by those who take it from the one who made it. Can one blame the vaccine that turns into a drug for some? All in all, it makes me question how profoundly I must have influenced them.

  • Wait, who ran the séance?

    I started to write something about Reagan, Rand, and where we’ve come, but I got too depressed and had to stop. I kind of can’t get past the Neshoba County Fair.

  • byafi

    You refer to a “… fetish for oligarchy, religious extremism and racism masked as anti-government rhetoric.” The irony is astonishing. The only worshipers of oligarchy in this country are the so-called progressives who believe all good things come from government, especially the federal government, and that individualism must be suppressed for the good of the collective. What a horror …

  • George Demas

    Dearest Leonard-
    This piece is divisive and unlike you–you have categorized everyone except “progressives” as being extremist. Do all who question the scope of government’s control have a “fetish for oligarchy, religious extremism and racism”? It seems to be your point-of-view that wanting to restrict governmental power is a warning sign to look out for in a person. I hope you don’t think that, because you would be including me. This piece is political lactic acid that inhibits real dialogue: I can’t imagine a civilized, productive conversation being derived from it. I’m tired of both sides being more interested in the thrill of the witch hunt and labeling people, than thought and the exchange of ideas.
    Love,
    George.

  • Nancy

    Progressives have hi-jacked the Democratic Party.
    Where are all the Democrats?
    Today when you vote Democratic you are voting Progressive.
    As close to Marxism as it gets.
    Speak up Democrats you’ve been hood-winked.

  • The idea of the right actually being for small government is totally absurd. If they could they would re-institute the draft (ie, state kidnapping), ban what consenting adults can do in their bedrooms (even now Texas is experimenting with this I believe), coerce children to say prayers to their god in schools, while arresting people without trial in the name of a war on terror. The right is against social liberty, and in terms of economic liberty they are just for a kind of deregulated corporatism. As the poster said, it’s just a fetish for oligarchy and authoritarianism guised in small government language. The whole thing is a total sham.

    Also, for the love of god, please do a quick Google search on Progressivism and Marxism. Read a Wikipedia article or something. This is just embarrassing. For that matter read Kolko’s “The Triumph of Conservatism” and you’ll see that much of the progressive regulations of industry were actually put into place by the business interests themselves as a way to prevent competition against themselves. Less competition means higher profits. Big business wanted regulation, just regulations they could control through lobbying etc. Progressivism was just the next phase of capitalism brought about by the consent of capitalists.

    What I would love to ask Ayn Rand is this: you say going against your self interest is unethical. But for many helping others is what they love most. If a person is for helping the needy more than accumulating wealth, then under your philosophy it is unethical to accumulate wealth. How do you answer this?

  • “What I would love to ask Ayn Rand is this: you say going against your self interest is unethical. But for many helping others is what they love most. If a person is for helping the needy more than accumulating wealth, then under your philosophy it is unethical to accumulate wealth. How do you answer this?”

    If you view an act of charity to be in your self interest, that is, if you feel you receive more from it than you give, then it is ethical under Objectivism. That gain to yourself does not have to be in the form of money, one of the biggest misconceptions about Objectivism is that it is full of money-grubbing dollar chasers. And it is half true in that Objectivists do not view money or financial success as evil, nor do they have any problems with explicitly working towards the goals of money and financial success. But… all acts are a trade. If you are doing one thing, you cannot do another. If you want one object, you have to give up another. Objectivism is about maximizing those trades in such a way as to produce the best outcome not only for you, but for the people you are trading with, since in Objectivism all trades are voluntary and if another engages in a trade with you, presumably he is doing it because he stands to gain from that trade as well. What Objectivism condemns is the idea of deliberately conducting those trades in such a way that you lose more than you gain, whether in money or some other form of “currency.” Charitable contributions and helping others only count as sacrifical, and thus immoral, when they specifically fall into the category of a trade where you lose more than you gain.

  • I should also point out that unless wealth is produced, it cannot be given away. You cannot give away what is not there. In our society, we have a strong tendency to denounce the producers of wealth (businessmen, industrialists, financiers, bankers, etc) and laud the givers of wealth (public servants, charitable contributions, etc). But the latter cannot exist without the former. If a person gives away money they made themselves or that was voluntarily donated them by others, Objectivism is rather ambivalent about this. If a person makes a living managing a charity that functions entirely on private donations (a privately run shelter, for example), Objectivism doesn’t care. It is only when charities, or the people who run them, function on coercively attained wealth (taxation, for example) that Objectivism starts denouncing those people and that system as immoral, especially when the people involved act like they are more moral for giving away the forcibly confiscated wealth than the people who created that wealth in the first place (the evil businessmen, etc.)

    I hope this answers your questions.

  • charles

    Good one! At first, I thought you were serious. But as I read along, fascinated by your “reasoning,” it became clear, ultimately, that it’s simply a spoof, a goof. You had me at first — till I realized nobody could actually seriously believe the things you said, much less make them public and appear that simplistic and foolish.
    Good one!

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  • Will Ditterline

    I cry foul. Ayn Rand would have never admitted a flaw. She would have ended that interview immediately. Even her introspection was self-serving, a charming notion that others might do well to admit in themselves.

  • Umm…Ayn Rand is not and was not a Conservative. At all. EVER.

    Rand’s philosophy is a flavor of Classical Liberalism, NOT Conservatism. True Conservatism–not the watered-down, Goldwater-inspired flavor bandied about today–is at its heart a Collectivist ideology concerned primarily with societal stability and the preservation of existing institutions and practices. Objectivism is purely Individual-focused, with an open embrace to the volatility and fluidity of a naturally occurring market.

    Conservatives, rest assured, have virtually nothing in common with Objectism or any other Libertarian philosophy.

  • Sedona Tahoe

    You use the phrase “progressive values.” This is a self-contradiction. “Progressive values” are neither progressive (they are actually regressive) nor are they human values (they do not benefit the individual human being). “Progressive values” are actually primitive, self-sacrificial, collectivist ethical ideas imposed via political force on individual human beings. When “progressive values” are implemented within a country such as the United States, they have the effect of regressing America in the direction of despicable collectivist societies.

    Your claim that Ayn Rand was a conservative is false. She was not a conservative. She did not want to conserve a political mixture of Christianity and pseudo-capitalism. She was an uncompromising, rational proponent of pure, totally-free, individualistic, laissez-faire capitalism. Read her works–all of them if need be–and you will discover this fundamental fact about the most rational and profound thinker that has ever lived on this Earth. The erroneous and feeble opinions of Lilliputian critics are worthless. As the decades and centuries pass, Ayn Rand will be recognized by historians as a seminal figure in the history of Western civilization.

  • Nullifidian

    “As the decades and centuries pass, Ayn Rand will be recognized by historians as a seminal figure in the history of Western civilization.”

    The decades have passed. It’s been over fifty years since Atlas Shrugged was written and there has been no change in the reputation Rand enjoys among people who are in a position to know. Ask a professional philosopher what he thinks about Rand, and she’ll probably say that the philosophy is incoherent but the writing might be decent, and ask a writer about Rand, and he may say that she committed stylistic atrocities against the English language but there might be something to her philosophy. Put them together, and you have a consensus that Rand is neither a good philosopher nor a good writer. When is this going to change, and how many lobotomies is it going to take?