Ayn Rand Made US a Selfish, Greedy Nation
By Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet
17 December 11
Thanks in part to Rand, the United States is one of the most
uncaring nations in the industrialized world.
Ayn Rand's "philosophy" is nearly perfect in its immorality, which
makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as
we enter a curious new phase in our society.... To justify and extol
human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. - Gore
Only rarely in U.S. history do writers transform us to become a more
caring or less caring nation. In the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe
(1811-1896) was a strong force in making the United States a more humane
nation, one that would abolish slavery of African Americans. A century
later, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) helped make the United States into one of
the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world, a neo-Dickensian
society where healthcare is only for those who can afford it, and where
young people are coerced into huge student-loan debt that cannot be
discharged in bankruptcy.
Rand's impact has been widespread and deep. At the iceberg's visible tip
is the influence she's had over major political figures who have shaped
American society. In the 1950s, Ayn Rand read aloud drafts of what was
later to become Atlas Shrugged to her "Collective," Rand's ironic
nickname for her inner circle of young individualists, which included
Alan Greenspan, who would serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board
from 1987 to 2006.
In 1966, Ronald Reagan wrote in a personal letter, "Am an admirer of Ayn
Rand." Today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) credits Rand for inspiring him to go
into politics, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) calls Atlas Shrugged his
"foundation book." Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) says Ayn Rand had a major
influence on him, and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an even bigger
fan. A short list of other Rand fans includes Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas; Christopher Cox, chairman of the Security and Exchange
Commission in George W. Bush's second administration; and former South
Carolina governor Mark Sanford.
But Rand's impact on U.S. society and culture goes even deeper.
The Seduction of Nathan Blumenthal
Ayn Rand's books such as The Virtue of Selfishness and her philosophy
that celebrates self-interest and disdains altruism may well be, as
Vidal assessed, "nearly perfect in its immorality." But is Vidal right
about evil? Charles Manson, who himself did not kill anyone, is the
personification of evil for many of us because of his psychological
success at exploiting the vulnerabilities of young people and seducing
them to murder. What should we call Ayn Rand's psychological ability to
exploit the vulnerabilities of millions of young people so as to
influence them not to care about anyone besides themselves?
While Greenspan (tagged "A.G." by Rand) was the most famous name that
would emerge from Rand's Collective, the second most well-known name to
emerge from the Collective was Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist,
author and "self-esteem" advocate. Before he was Nathaniel Branden, he
was Nathan Blumenthal, a 14-year-old who read Rand's The Fountainhead
again and again. He later would say, "I felt hypnotized." He describes
how Rand gave him a sense that he could be powerful, that he could be a
hero. He wrote one letter to his idol Rand, then a second. To his
amazement, she telephoned him, and at age 20, Nathan received an
invitation to Ayn Rand's home. Shortly after, Nathan Blumenthal
announced to the world that he was incorporating Rand in his new name:
Nathaniel Branden. And in 1955, with Rand approaching her 50th birthday
and Branden his 25th, and both in dissatisfying marriages, Ayn bedded
What followed sounds straight out of Hollywood, but Rand was straight
out of Hollywood, having worked for Cecil B. DeMille. Rand convened a
meeting with Nathaniel, his wife Barbara (also a Collective member), and
Rand's own husband Frank. To Branden's astonishment, Rand convinced both
spouses that a time-structured affair-she and Branden were to have one
afternoon and one evening a week together-was "reasonable." Within the
Collective, Rand is purported to have never lost an argument. On his
trysts at Rand's New York City apartment, Branden would sometimes shake
hands with Frank before he exited. Later, all discovered that Rand's
sweet but passive husband would leave for a bar, where he began his
self-destructive affair with alcohol.
By 1964, the 34-year-old Nathaniel Branden had grown tired of the now
59-year-old Ayn Rand. Still sexually dissatisfied in his marriage to
Barbara and afraid to end his affair with Rand, Branden began sleeping
with a married 24-year-old model, Patrecia Scott. Rand, now "the woman
scorned," called Branden to appear before the Collective, whose nickname
had by now lost its irony for both Barbara and Branden. Rand's justice
was swift. She humiliated Branden and then put a curse on him: "If you
have one ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological
health-you'll be impotent for the next twenty years! And if you achieve
potency sooner, you'll know it's a sign of still worse moral degradation!"
Rand completed the evening with two welt-producing slaps across
Branden's face. Finally, in a move that Stalin and Hitler would have
admired, Rand also expelled poor Barbara from the Collective, declaring
her treasonous because Barbara, preoccupied by her own extramarital
affair, had neglected to fill Rand in soon enough on Branden's
extra-extra-marital betrayal. (If anyone doubts Alan Greenspan's
political savvy, keep in mind that he somehow stayed in Rand's good
graces even though he, fixed up by Branden with Patrecia's twin sister,
had double-dated with the outlaws.)
After being banished by Rand, Nathaniel Branden was worried that he
might be assassinated by other members of the Collective, so he moved
from New York to Los Angeles, where Rand fans were less fanatical.
Branden established a lucrative psychotherapy practice and authored
approximately 20 books, 10 of them with either "Self" or "Self-Esteem"
in the title. Rand and Branden never reconciled, but he remains an
admirer of her philosophy of self-interest.
Ayn Rand's personal life was consistent with her philosophy of not
giving a shit about anybody but herself. Rand was an ardent
two-pack-a-day smoker, and when questioned about the dangers of smoking,
she loved to light up with a defiant flourish and then scold her young
questioners on the "unscientific and irrational nature of the
statistical evidence." After an x-ray showed that she had lung cancer,
Rand quit smoking and had surgery for her cancer. Collective members
explained to her that many people still smoked because they respected
her and her assessment of the evidence; and that since she no longer
smoked, she ought to tell them. They told her that she needn't mention
her lung cancer, that she could simply say she had reconsidered the
evidence. Rand refused.
How Rand's Philosophy Seduced Young Minds
When I was a kid, my reading included comic books and Rand's The
Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There wasn't much difference between
the comic books and Rand's novels in terms of the simplicity of the
heroes. What was different was that unlike Superman or Batman, Rand made
selfishness heroic, and she made caring about others weakness.
Rand said, "Capitalism and altruism are incompatible....The choice is
clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its
consequences of freedom, justice, progress and man's happiness on
earth-or the primordial morality of altruism, with its consequences of
slavery, brute force, stagnant terror and sacrificial furnaces." For
many young people, hearing that it is "moral" to care only about oneself
can be intoxicating, and some get addicted to this idea for life.
I have known several people, professionally and socially, whose lives
have been changed by those close to them who became infatuated with Ayn
Rand. A common theme is something like this: "My ex-husband wasn't a bad
guy until he started reading Ayn Rand. Then he became a completely
selfish jerk who destroyed our family, and our children no longer even
talk to him."
To wow her young admirers, Rand would often tell a story of how a
smart-aleck book salesman had once challenged her to explain her
philosophy while standing on one leg. She replied:
"Metaphysics-objective reality. Epistemology-reason.
Ethics-self-interest. Politics-capitalism." How did that philosophy
capture young minds?
Metaphysics-objective reality. Rand offered a narcotic for confused
young people: complete certainty and a relief from their anxiety. Rand
believed that an "objective reality" existed, and she knew exactly what
that objective reality was. It included skyscrapers, industries,
railroads, and ideas-at least her ideas. Rand's objective reality did
not include anxiety or sadness. Nor did it include much humor, at least
the kind where one pokes fun at oneself. Rand assured her Collective
that objective reality did not include Beethoven's, Rembrandt's, and
Shakespeare's realities-they were too gloomy and too tragic, basically
buzzkillers. Rand preferred Mickey Spillane and, towards the end of her
life, "Charlie's Angels."
Epistemology-reason. Rand's kind of reason was a "cool-tool" to control
the universe. Rand demonized Plato, and her youthful Collective members
were taught to despise him. If Rand really believed that the Socratic
Method described by Plato of discovering accurate definitions and clear
thinking did not qualify as "reason," why then did she regularly attempt
it with her Collective? Also oddly, while Rand mocked dark moods and
despair, her "reasoning" directed that Collective members should admire
Dostoyevsky, whose novels are filled with dark moods and despair. A
demagogue, in addition to hypnotic glibness, must also be intellectually
inconsistent, sometimes boldly so. This eliminates challenges to
authority by weeding out clear-thinking young people from the flock.
Ethics-self-interest. For Rand, all altruists were manipulators. What
could be more seductive to kids who discerned the motives of martyr
parents, Christian missionaries and U.S. foreign aiders? Her champions,
Nathaniel Branden still among them, feel that Rand's view of
"self-interest" has been horribly misrepresented. For them,
self-interest is her hero architect Howard Roark turning down a
commission because he couldn't do it exactly his way. Some of Rand's
novel heroes did have integrity, however, for Rand there is no struggle
to discover the distinction between true integrity and childish vanity.
Rand's integrity was her vanity, and it consisted of getting as much
money and control as possible, copulating with whomever she wanted
regardless of who would get hurt, and her always being right. To equate
one's selfishness, vanity, and egotism with one's integrity liberates
young people from the struggle to distinguish integrity from
selfishness, vanity, and egotism.
Politics-capitalism. While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian
collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian
collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S.
corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate
individualism, freedom, or courage. Rand was clever and hypocritical
enough to know that you don't get rich in the United States talking
about compliance and conformity within corporate America. Rather, Rand
gave lectures titled: "America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business." So,
young careerist corporatists could embrace Rand's self-styled "radical
capitalism" and feel radical - radical without risk.
In recent years, we have entered a phase where it is apparently okay for
major political figures to publicly embrace Rand despite her contempt
for Christianity. In contrast, during Ayn Rand's life, her philosophy
that celebrated self-interest was a private pleasure for the 1 percent
but she was a public embarrassment for them. They used her books to
congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness, but they
publicly steered clear of Rand because of her views on religion and God.
Rand, for example, had stated on national television, "I am against God.
I don't approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness. I
regard it as an evil."
Actually, again inconsistent, Rand did have a god. It was herself. She said:
"I am done with the monster of 'we,' the word of serfdom, of
plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god,
and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since
men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and
pride. This god, this one word: 'I.'"
While Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed Americans about the United State's
dehumanization of African Americans and slavery, Ayn Rand removed
Americans' guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except
themselves. Not only did Rand make it "moral" for the wealthy not to pay
their fair share of taxes, she "liberated" millions of other Americans
from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their
The good news is that I've seen ex-Rand fans grasp the damage that
Rand's philosophy has done to their lives and to then exorcize it from
their psyche. Can the United States as a nation do the same thing?
"It is better to vote for what you want and not get it
than it is to vote for what you don't want and get it."
--Eugene V. Debs
than it is to vote for what you don't want and get it."
--Eugene V. Debs
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