North Shore Milwaukee in the 60s and 70s, from this vantage, certainly seems to have been a better, a simpler, a less threatening, time than the 2010s are unfolding themselves. Ayn Rand was making her way through and into the minds of high school students, who at times must have felt invigorated by her anthem of self-interest. Most of us discarded her amoral stance and became businessmen, leader, parents, and citizens.
Her name, her fiction, and her philosophy of life, however, continue to appear today in high school backpacks (together with Hunger Games and The Lady in Blue: both far better reads than Rand) across the North Shore. Today her name is well known among Tea Party activists; and the awful film version of The Fountainhead can be found in Red Box. Today, celebrity politician such as Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan are paying vocal homage to Objectivism, while most of us do not understand the true and lasting damage and destruction that will be done to America if they succeed.
Personally, I’ve felt buoyed by the fact that I escaped the lure of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I grew up in “the big house”," a member of the elite, a plutocrat in training, surrounded by lifelong Republicans. In that same household dwelt occasionally, and visited all too frequently, am Uncle who proved to be a modern incarnation of both Iago and Claudius as well as my Weimar-Republic-based grandmother, but that is another story, perhaps for a different day. Today I merely want to lend some notes on the issue of Ayn Rand’s influence on American Tea Party politics and Wisconsin’s own Objectivist and photogenic “pretty boy," Paul Ryan.
Ryan, Walker, the Tea Party, and members of the extreme Conservatives display the “keen edge of fanaticism that was the hallmark of Ayn Rand.” [This and all other quotations are from Gary Weiss’s Ayn Rand Nation]. The Randian cult has been at work in the United States, albeit less visibly and less noisily, for many years. Alan Greenspan, arguably the worst head of the Federal Reserve in its history, was a devoted disciple. The trouble with turning the words of a good storyteller into a philosophy of self-interestedness that then guides a Nation is that the philosophy at best is amoral.
As Weiss points out in his very readable book, Greenspan’s contribution to the Depression of 2008 and these following years highlights “the fact that Rand had failed. Her ideas had collided with the real world, a world in which monomaniacal selfishness is not beneficial but harmful, in which businessmen are driven by the scent of money to act recklessly, and in which capitalism requires government oversight lest capitalistic excesses hurt the financial system and society as a whole” (235).
As fiction, Rand is a competent storyteller. In Weiss’s own words, “The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are beguilin …. discarding the ethical concepts that make life bearable. They make it seem so natural, so easy, so moral, to be utterly self-centered and greedy. Out most fundamental religious teachings – out. Service to the Nation – out. Aid to the poor and elderly, whether they are “worthy” or not – out. Selflessness – out. Altruism – out. By any reasonable ethical standard … taken as a whole they are staggeringly immoral books (emphasis mine), presenting an ideology that appeals to American values but is simply not American”(249).
Those of us who are Progressives and Progressive Conservatives must engage against the dark and evil forces of the Randian Right. The Tea Party, the Extreme Conservatives, Walker and Ryan, and now Romney. Regardless of their looks, their personalities, their personal fortunes, and their fine educations, the adherence of politicians such as Paul Ryan and the others to Objectivism makes them a HUGE danger to this Nation. America needs a new social contract and it must not be a Randian social contract. Instead, I believe that we need to work together to co-create a sustainable future for all, one characterized by the ability of all to flourish. Such a society needs the Public. The Public is the infrastructure and support upon which the Private stands and is able to succeed.
On the other hand, the Randians believe that “Government is inherently negative” (261). The tenets of Ayn Rand’s worldview have been circulated for decades, “its tenets reiterated endlessly by Rand and her disciples:"
— No government except the police, courts of law, and the armed services
— No regulation of anything by any government
— No Medicare or Medicaid.
— No Social Security.
— No Public Schools.
— No public hospitals.
— No public anything, in fact. Just individuals, each looking out for himself, not asking for help or giving help to anyone.” (261-2).
America’s democratic republic is being threatened by these Randians, by the Tea Party, by conservatives, and especially by our near-fascistic leaders like Ryan and Walker, whose divisive, unilateral decisions, and policies, have hurt, and unsettled, so many of us.
American needs to revitalize its Christian-founding ethics. We need a movement that is based upon Augustinian (or, Pauline) and Aristotelian purposes: Truth, Beauty, Unity, Goodness, Empathy, and Love – those moral & ethical foundations have guided us successfully, for the most part, during our nearly 250 years as a sovereign Nation. In stark contrast looms the America of the Tea Party, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and their ilk. “An Objectivist America would be a dark age…. In an Objectivist world, the reset button would be pushed on government services that we take for granted. They would not be cut back, not reduced – they would vanish” (262).
Tell the extreme right that America does not value Ayn Rand, her Objectivist philosophy, and her mantra of self-interest above all else. Keep America vital; do not let it become – as Fritz Lang envisioned the world of his 1927 film Metropolis - a “dystopian hell …with dull-eyed masses slaving away in the underworld to support the privileged classes.” We need to replace “selfishness with selflessness, radical capitalism with humanity, and underlined the need for government at a time when government is under attack” (260).