When I was in college, I read everything Ayn Rand wrote–and was immensely influenced by it.
The Cold War was still a reality, and Soviet communism was a genuine menace, ideologically and geopolitically. Rand’s books were a corrective (okay, an over-corrective) to the notion that the individual should live for the state, and her lack of balance was understandable coming as it did from someone who had escaped the Soviet Union when she was still a teenager.
Over the years, Rand’s books and philosophy took their place as one aspect of my own broader exploration of political philosophy. I still think they are a useful expression of radical libertarianism, even though the demise of the Soviet Union and communism have made her work seem increasingly dated and shrill.
People can agree or disagree with Rand’s philosophy, but what has bemused me is the appropriation of bits and pieces of her writing in ways that I think would probably infuriate her. Case in point: the head of a state agency who told a colleague of mine that he required his employees to read two books for inspiration: Atlas Shrugged and the Bible. Ayn Rand, a committed atheist who considered religion a weakness, would have been appalled.
I also had to laugh at the rash of bumper stickers and letters to the editor a few years ago from people self-identifying with Rand’s hero, John Galt. Virtually all of them were arguing for government policies that would benefit businesses–tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory changes and the like. Most of their arguments echoed those of Rand’s villain, James Taggart–the sniveling parasite who embodied the corporate behaviors of which Rand disapproved–rather than the ideology of her (very unrealistic) protagonist.
As the current political season heats up, we are once again seeing references to Rand–Eric Cantor, the architect of the GOP budget is said to be deeply influenced by her philosophy, and left-wing bloggers mutter darkly about her evil and pervasive influence–and I can’t help seeing parallels between the way people read Rand’s books and the way they read the bible or the Koran or the Constitution–which is to say, very selectively.
Homophobes point to three or four passages in the Christian bible to justify marginalization of gays. Anti-Muslim bigots point to isolated passages of the Koran to paint all of Islam with a broad, terrorist brush. People who don’t like the implications of government’s obligation to treat citizens equally and their belief systems neutrally use isolated provisions to justify revisionist interpretations. Those on the other side of the philosophical fence respond with their own cherry-picking.
Ayn Rand, like those who wrote our Constitution and other “holy books,” was a product of a particular time and place. In her case, she was reacting against a repressive, totalitarian regime. She really can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the threat posed by a radical individualism that didn’t exist in her world, just as Karl Marx can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the dangers of the communist revolution he was promoting.
Ideally, we should all read widely–Rand and Marx, bible and Koran. But if we can’t read widely, at least we should read carefully.
I think about that every time I encounter a “bible-believing” Christian who identifies with Ayn Rand.