Today is Ayn Rand’s 100th Birthday. Like many people around the world, my life was changed completely by my encounter with her work. Thirteen years after my first encounter with her, there are some things with which I disagree, but I still consider myself an Objectivist, and I am deeply grateful for what she taught me.
I first discovered Rand in 1992, in the summer before my junior year in high school. I was sitting in front of the TV, watching Cinemax, and the announcement came on: coming up next, a movie about an architect. I remember thinking, “how can you make a movie about an architect? Is it just two hours of a guy drawing?” So I gave it a try. Oh, was it awful. The acting was atrocious, the music was painful…until about a half hour into it. And then it started getting really interesting.
By the end of the movie, I was cheering in my heart. Here was something new—something I’d never heard before, and yet which I’d always believed, somehow. All the lame talk of self-sacrifice and servitude and cooperation—all the soundbite morality that you get all the time as a teenager—had always bothered me somehow, and yet I had no idea why. The pressure of conformity had been so difficult for me that I had been expelled, suspended, threatened with expulsion, threatened with suspension, or failed, in every grade from the 4th until that moment. I detested school—I hated being ordered about and “taught” that my duty was to do as my teachers and everyone else told me. Mostly I hated the peer pressure, under which you were either part of the group or you were nothing. I had always been nothing. But I had always believed that somehow great ideas and great people made a difference. And here was a movie that expressed that idea. I remember my favorite part was Gail Wynand dictating the editorial about how self-sacrifice is not a virtue. “It is the unsacrificed self that we must treasure in man, above all,” he said. Wow.
As soon as school started, I raced in to talk to the high school librarian (who was, and remains one of my very best friends). “There was this great movie,” I said…. “There’s a book,” he said. But he said I had to read Atlas Shrugged first. I think he was half joking. Well, I did. (Our high school had a first edition! Of course, it was in awful shape, but…) It took me three months, and oh, was it boring—for a while. And then I found myself questioning everything I’d once believed. Or rather, everything I had been told to believe, and that I had repeated as if I believed, but which I had never really thought about at all.
That, I think, is one of the big keys to Rand’s popularity: she insists on asking why about things that most people don’t want to think about at all. Most people just accept, and repeat, that morality means self-sacrifice, that good people conform and do what others say, that government has to care for the poor, and so on, without bothering to look at the reasons for these things. Rand relentlessly demands to know why. That alone is a profound thing to teach a kid. She taught me, in many ways, how to think.
Of course she wasn’t the only influence. My parents were great, and I had discovered Thomas Jefferson some years before. But this was something much more consistent, much more revolutionary. It wasn’t always comfortable, but I found myself more willing to challenge old assumptions—and the people who peddled them. I read her fiction in reverse—first Atlas, then Fountainhead, then Anthem, then We The Living. I devoured her non-fiction. (I think I’ve actually read everything she published, except Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.) I went to college, where practically every day, my professors felt it necessary to attack Rand. And I discovered some ways in which I disagree with Rand (and more, with her followers). I think her essay saying that no woman should ever be president is silly. I don’t buy her argument for patents and copyrights anymore. More often, I was told things about how awful Rand was as a person—things which often proved to be untrue, like the story that Murray Rothbard made up about her demanding that her followers smoke. (A common story. Totally untrue.)
It became very common to see libertarians, as well as others, try to demonstrate how original and independent they were by saying nasty things about Rand—and for no other reason, really. That always bothered me. One thing about my personality, which my encounter with Ayn Rand only increased, is that I am a hero-worshipper. I love great people. But the attitude of so many people is that no person is truly great. In many cases, this is a function of the smallness of their own souls. A bigger person is able to do like my friend Bruce Herschensohn: the first words I ever spoke to him were “What do you think of Ayn Rand?” “Oh, she’s great,” he said. “The queen of libertarianism. There are some things I disagree with her about; I believe in God, for instance. But she’s a great writer, and she says a lot of good things.”
Aside from teaching me to demand to know the reasons when people say things about morality and politics and things, Rand taught me that it is possible to be a spiritual atheist. It is possible to have grandeur without magic. It is possible to love, and to strive, and to achieve and to be something real, without buying into the mundane values and the murky, “moderate” thinking that surrounds us. There’s a line in Thus Spake Zarathustra which Rand repeats (without attribution) in Atlas Shrugged: “Do not throw away the hero in your soul.” That is the spirit of Rand’s greatest work.
I think Ayn Rand was right about most of what she said. She was right about reason. She was right about selfishness. She was right about capitalism. She was often right about art. She was not a god. She was not always right. Her personality was often very bad. But she was a great thinker and she changed my life, and I’m deeply grateful. At the end of Barbara Branden’s excellent biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand (which was made into a godawful movie full of outright lies), Branden says, nobody who reads Rand’s work is unchanged. You may love her or you may hate her, but life is never the same after you read her work. Very true. I toast her with gratitude and happiness on her 100th birthday.
If there are any readers out there who would like to share their thoughts on Rand (and let’s keep them constructive, please, I’m just bored with the ad hominem now), and particularly, how they first encountered Rand’s work, I’d love to hear them.
Update 2: Reader Jonathan Rowe writes, “If you thought Allan Bloom had bad things to say about Rand, did you see what Masugi wrote about her?” Yes. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand is a subject on which Ken Masugi is absolutely and completely irrational. I had dinner with him and Harry Jaffa and some other folks a couple years ago, and Rand’s name came up. Masugi literally screamed at me—other folks in the restaurant turned their heads in surprise—for even mentioning her name. He let off with a rant about how she was irrational and so forth. (He has this very strange idea that Rand was a Rousseauian. I’ve frequently asked him to explain, but he never has.) I just calmly replied to the other folks at the table, “Well, you can see which one of us is more reasonable.”
Dr. Masugi often says things that are quite unreasonable. But when it comes to Rand, his extraordinarily thoughtless hostility betrays, I think, his secret knowledge that her arguments are far better than his. Thus he raises his voice, when he ought to reinforce his claims.
Update 3: Thanks to Magnifisyncopathological for the link.
Update 4: Up With Beaty shares some thoughts.
Update 5: Thanks to Right Mind for the link.
Update 6: A long and thoughtful post at Positive Liberty.
Update 7: Thanks to MythoPoet’s Mirror for the link.