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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.