Why I soured on Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand will be receiving a new round of attention this week as the movie version of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, makes its debut on Friday. It looks as though distribution might be spotty at first, so it will be interesting to see whether word-of-mouth will create a groundswell.

I’ve been interested in Rand’s work ever since I read The Fountainhead during my junior year of college. For years, I admired Rand, and then I soured on her.

The Lutheran school I attended, Concordia University (well ok, back then it was Concordia Teachers College) was in River Forest, Ill. It lay next door to Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright built a number of homes, including his own. I loved Wright’s work – still do – so I wanted to read a novel widely believed to be based on him.

The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, a rugged individualist of an architect who works alone rather than signing on with one of the big-name architectural firms. They all do compromising, copy-cat work, he believes, and they’re happy to further convention and tradition rather than challenge it. Roark, like Wright, sees the possibilities in new materials, and he has an overarching vision of what a modern building should be. To him, clients have only one purpose, which is to provide money so he can build. If they don’t want his building, they shouldn’t hire him.

He stands in contrast to his classmate, the successful but sycophantic Peter Keating. Roark joins forces with Keating just once – against his better instincts – because Keating’s firm has the standing to win a major public housing project that Roark wants to design. He exacts a promise from Keating that the project will be built as Roark designs it, without deviation. Keating promises but doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to requests for change. Roark is furious and decides the only thing to do is to dynamite the project into oblivion. He goes on trial but wins the jury over with a rousing speech about the need to remain true to oneself, and he is acquitted. (You know, the kind of stuff that happens in books but rarely in real life.)

I became editor of the student newspaper at Concordia my senior year, and I was determined to be like Howard Roark. I did fairly well, writing regularly against a national church body that I believed was wrongly conducting heresy hearings against theology professors around the country.

Later in life, I began to sour on Ayn Rand. I enjoyed her other major work, 1957’s Atlas Shrugged. It’s an interesting story. All the heroes are value-creating capitalists, and all the villains are leeches such as government regulators, unions and nonprofit organization. There’s an occasional nod to the contributions and virtue of good, hard-working craftsmen, but the real heroes are the men – and one forceful woman – who create companies and strong products or services. The world comes to a halt in Atlas Shrugged when the heroes band together and disappear – in effect shrugging off a society that was becoming too much of a burden for them.

At some point, I came to see that Ayn Rand lived in a bubble. The things that many of us care about – family, uniting in community causes, recognizing forces larger than ourselves – simply aren’t part of her books. It’s a cold, two-dimensional world she imagines, one with heroes and hangers-on but no real, flesh-and-blood people dealing with aging parents, suffering children, starving masses and devastating forces of nature. It can be a black-and-white world because as a novelist, she can make it that way; most of us, as flesh-and-blood human beings, don’t exert so much control over our lives.

She also trusted that capitalists would never steal, lie or seek unfair advantage. How naive that turned out to be.

I admire integrity, and I believe business, innovation and entrepreneurship are the backbone of America. I have those things in common with Ayn Rand.

I also believe, however, that some people are incapable of making it in a capitalist system, and we can’t simply turn a deaf ear to them. That old-fashioned term “safety net” still holds meaning for me, and I believe we have to maintain one for the least fortunate among us. It’s not clear what Ayn Rand would do for them; she seems not to give much thought to them.

I understand the context in which Rand lived her life. She grew up as a Russian Jew, and she and her family suffered personally when her father’s pharmacy business was taken over by the state. It’s no wonder that she became a believer in capitalism, individualism and reason over the kind of zealous movement that communism became. She went on to develop and espouse a philosophy called Objectivism, which celebrates the virtues of reason, rational self interest and the pursuit of individual happiness.

She scoffs at the notion of sacrifice on behalf of others, perhaps because she saw how a ruthless state can twist sacrifice into coerced surrender of material goods. I think she became so distrustful of the world that she couldn’t see the joy to be found in caring enough about someone else to want to sacrifice for them. This article in New York Magazine seems to reach the same conclusion.

If you know her work, it seems, you either love it or hate it. Where do you stand?

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