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They knew it, those Objectivists. One of them said to me, "I hope we have an impact on you." He knew.
That remark was made to me at one of the monthly meetings of Ayn Rand followers in Manhattan. I was becoming a regular participant. Oddly, I was liking it and growing fond of the people who attended. Even odder was that I was enjoying her novels and becoming vaguely simpatico to her beliefs, even though they were contrary to everything I had been taught and experienced since infancy. Her novels were compelling and persuasive in ways that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The publisher Bennett Cerf had a similar reaction to Rand as a person. He said in his memoirs that "I found myself liking her, though I had not expected to."1
Atlas Shrugged was on my coffee table, gathering dust, for several weeks before I picked it up. I had a copy of one of its innumerable softcover editions, with a foreword by her aide, heir, and sidekick Leonard Peikoff. Eventually I forced myself to read it. Initially, I was in agreement with my teenage self that this book wasn't very good.
I was repelled by Rand's leaden phraseology and too-cute way of naming her characters. The villains have names like "Balph" and "Slagenhop." A public official who advocates mooching is named "Wesley Mouch." It was Dickensian without being witty. They are physically repulsive and they spout inanities; clay pigeons tossed in the air so Rand could blast them with a shotgun.
For example: "A very young girl in white evening gown asked timidly, ‘What is the essence of life, Mr. Eubank?' ‘Suffering,' said Balph Eubank, ‘defeat and suffering.'" Eubank favors a law limiting the sale of any book to ten thousand copies. But what if it's a good story? "‘Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature,' said Balph Eubank, contemptuously."2
Some of my notes as I read the book: "Implausible." "Anti-American." "Defense needs/establishment absent." (Odd for a book published at the height of the Cold War.) "Characters live in moral vacuum." "Contempt for poor."
But then, as the pages flipped by, my resistance eroded. I began to admire her skill at pacing such an immense work of fiction. The Hollywood screenwriter in her was becoming evident. I felt ashamed. It was as if I was savoring Mein Kampf, chortling along with der Führer as he expounded wittily on the disease-carrying vermin that were my ancestral burden. I carried around this massive book in a tote bag, keeping its title hidden as I walked the collectivist streets of Greenwich Village, avoiding the eyes of passersby.
It became plain to me that her appeal is more than just political. Her novels serve collectively as the Big Book of Objectivism, a self-help manual as well as a work of fiction and ideological hornbook. Embedded in her work is a singular view of the psychology of human relationships, sans family. She never had children and didn't provide much insight into the parent-child relationship, but she certainly had strong opinions on how to deal with moochers, sorry SOBs, and louses that might be found within one's family. The basic message is that one jettisons them without a second thought. And as for adultery: What of it? What's good enough for Hank Rearden is surely good enough for any follower of his exploits as a thin, sexy steel manufacturer, long-suffering breadwinner for an ungrateful family and Dagny's main squeeze.
Racy sex scenes, steamy romantic triangles, and an unconventional view of nuptial relations are the sugar that Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead spread on the sour grapefruit of philosophical exposition. Neither is an homage to family values, to say the least. In both novels, all of the major characters are isolated, existential figures, sort of what you'd find in a film noir. Not an Ozzie nor a Harriet nor a Ward Cleaver was to be found in Ayn Rand's fantasy world. Few children, fewer behaving like children. No Wally, no Beaver. June Cleaver would have been a hard-charging exec or the inventor of an ore-refining process. The Fred Rutherfords and other second-handers and collectivists in the Cleaver family circle would have been treated with the kind of cold contempt that only a Rand character could dish out.
Atlas and Fountainhead made it easy to love individualism and no-government capitalism because it was a world of healthy, young heroes and repulsive villains. There were no inconvenient elderly defecating upon themselves in nursing homes. No paraplegic war veterans without means of support. No refugees from far-off lands with unmarketable skills. No KKK rallies. No exploitation of the poor. No rat-infested slums. No racial minorities. Poverty and unemployment are a distant, alien presence. The only member of the underclass Dagny encounters is a railroad hobo who turns out to be an Objectivist with a lead on Galt. There is nobody and nothing to interrupt the monotonous picture, nothing to upset the stereotypes, no migrant workers toiling for pennies. Rand, acting as God, made those people invisible while she whitened the hearts of American business. The only societal problem in the world of Atlas Shrugged is that government is mean to business and unfair to the wealthy.
The two inanely skewed Rand opuses were the intellectual backstory of the group meetings that I attended. The members were polite and tolerant if one was not up to speed on Rand's works, just as they were reasonably courteous to the occasional collectivist who happened by, but it was hard to follow the discussions without having a working knowledge of her novels and nomenclature. "Checking premises" was one common catchphrase. Rand liked to say that people who disagreed with her were utilizing incorrect premises in their thought processes.
I was introduced to these meetings by my initial tour guide to Objectivism, a man who was literally a tour guide. His name was Frederick Cookinham, and in his spare time he gave walking tours of "Ayn Rand's New York."3 He is the author of a rambling but intriguing self-published volume of Ayn Rand-inspired thought, The Age of Rand: Imagining an Objectivist Future World. Despite the title, it spends more time mulling Rand's philosophy than imagining the future. It's a thoughtful book, at times amusing, a quality not often found in Objectivist literature. It takes a skeptical attitude toward the keepers of the Objectivist flame at the Ayn Rand Institute, and is far from hero-worshiping when it comes to Rand herself. For example, he points out that though Rand opposed racism, "there remain so many references in her writings to the ‘pest holes of Asia' and ‘naked savages' who want foreign aid from the United States, that her assumption is clear, despite her actually defining a ‘savage' as someone who believes in magic."
Fred was disturbed by Rand's opinion of Mahatma Gandhi, as contained in a 1948 letter from Rand to right-wing writer Isabel Paterson one week after Gandhi was killed.4 She called his assassination "an almost cruel piece of historical irony" and said that it was almost as if a higher intelligence in the universe had carried out a "nice sardonic gesture." Rand said, "Here was a man who spent his life fighting to get the British out of India in the name of peace, brotherly love and non-violence. He got what he asked for."
Fred was nonplussed. "What is she saying here?" Seemed pretty obvious to me: Gandhi was an altruist and got the fate that he deserved. It was a good example of the cold-bloodedness that she so often displayed. Fred doesn't resolve his dilemma, and points out, somewhat dubiously, that Rand and Gandhi are actually "allies," at least in a limited sense, as both believed that the ends justify the means. Personally I can't conceive of two individuals with less in common, even if Gandhi did display individuality of an almost Roarkish dimension.
It was clear from reading his book, and from joining him on his walking tour, that Fred was an independent thinker, certainly no cultist.5 I met him for lunch at an Au Bon Pain sandwich-and-coffee joint in Lower Manhattan, not far from where Rand was famously photographed with Federal Hall in the background, wearing a solid-gold dollar-sign brooch.
Fred was in his mid-fifties, had a salt-and-pepper beard and a disconcerting resemblance to Richard Dreyfuss. He worked as a proofreader for a law firm when not giving tours, and sang in a light-opera company in his spare time. Like most people I met who sipped from the cup of Rand, Fred first stumbled upon her books at an early age. He was eleven when he found Anthem, one of Rand's early novellas, and Atlas Shrugged in his brother's bookcase. He eagerly consumed the shorter book, which was the story of a tyrannical society in which collectivism runs rampant, a harsher version of the fantasy world of Atlas Shrugged, in which people are referred to by numbers and the word "I" is eliminated. Atlas was far too big for him to read immediately, but the book intrigued him, and he began reading it when he was thirteen. He plowed right through it.
At the State University of New York in Cortland, he told me over our sandwiches, "the first thing I did was join the Libertarian Party." At the time, libertarians were a freewheeling, quasi-anarchist group of people, and not yet quite so neatly folded into the conservative movement as they are today. At one point Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame gave a speech on campus. Fred got his autograph on an issue of Reason magazine that featured an interview with Ellsberg. Fred recalled that Ellsberg told him that Reason's libertarian views were close to his own. That was understandable because libertarianism, especially in its early days, had a serious appeal to the left as well as the right. Libertarians opposed encroachments on one's freedom in the style of the New Left, and received some notoriety for advocating legalization of marijuana. (Rand did, too, though it was hardly a central plank in her platform.)
I ran by him the name of a Reason writer I once knew, but Fred hadn't heard of him. "I don't keep up on the news," Fred told me. Instead, he spent his off hours reading books. Indeed, Fred was a quiet sort, studious and well-informed on historical minutiae. He was a regular at the bimonthly meetings of the American Revolution Roundtable.
Fred felt sufficiently simpatico to Rand's philosophy during her lifetime that he attended her funeral in 1982, braving the cold of the northern Westchester cemetery to see her buried beside her long-suffering husband, a kindhearted, alcoholic former actor named Frank O'Connor. Fred met Rand only once—"barely," he said—just to get her autograph. It was 1978, and Leonard Peikoff had just given a lecture on the "Basic Principles of Objectivism" at the Hotel Pennsylvania. Rand was in attendance, as she often was when a member of her inner circle was speaking. Fred found that Rand was just as she was described in the press. "Irascible," he said. "Short fuse." He found it amusing.
I asked what Rand meant to him, and Fred was, unsurprisingly, philosophical. "Because I was so young, there wasn't very much there for Rand to compete against," he told me. "I often wondered how I would have turned out if I hadn't happened to pick up that book or had happened to pick up some other book."
Rand's influence on Fred was a bit of a surprise to me: She actually made him less anti-union and less of a cold warrior. He was from a conservative, Republican household in Upstate New York. Very "white bread, mayonnaise," Middle American. His father had a management position at a road construction company, and negotiated with a muscle-flexing Teamsters Union then run by Jimmy Hoffa. Unsurprisingly, the elder Cookinham took a dim view of unions. "It was Rand who got me out of that mentality, and got me more sympathetic to unions. She made the point that as people have a right to form companies, so they also have a right to form unions."
Fred was right. Rand was opposed to the Taft–Hartley Act, a postwar measure that weakened unions and enabled states to enact "right to work" laws that prohibited companies from firing workers who wouldn't join unions. In a 1949 letter, she objected to "government's ‘right to curb a union'—or to curb anyone's economic activities."6
"People don't expect that," said Fred. "A lot of libertarians and Objectivists I don't think get this. They have a kind of instinctive fear and hatred of unions." It is instinctive, apparently, for many on the right to feel that companies can bind together in their own rational self-interest—Rand opposed antitrust laws—but that the same actions are bad when carried out by their employees.
Rand, he said, also kept him from falling into the paranoid "Buckleyite" Cold War worldview, by not subscribing to conspiracy theories and the anti-Communist hysteria of the times. He pointed to one of her essays, "Extremism, Or the Art of Smearing," which appeared in her anthology Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, as an example. "That, by the way, is the only place in any of her writings in which she mentioned Joe McCarthy, and then only parenthetically, just to say ‘I am not a supporter of Joe McCarthy,'" he noted. Fred's argument had a kernel of truth, except that the purpose of the essay was to attack critics of McCarthyism, not to knock McCarthy or the paranoia he engendered.*
Fred was actively involved in the Libertarian Party in New York through the mid-1990s. He worked in the thankless trenches of politics, passing out leaflets on the inhospitable sidewalks of New York. Over time he became disillusioned. Libertarians in New York forever occupy a tiny substratum of the local political scene, with little impact on the electorate or the political dialogue. "I saw a lack of seriousness of purpose," he told me. Fred had a similarly negative opinion of the Tea Party, which he dismissed as "amateur stuff," with even less of a future than the Libertarian Party. "A flash in the pan," was his verdict. "A media creation."
Fred clued me in to the regularly scheduled meetings of New York City Objectivists, which were held the last Sunday of every month. The regular venue was the Midtown Restaurant, a coffee shop on East 55th Street that was as bland and generic as its name. Sitting at tables pushed together near the front were about twenty mostly middle-aged men and women, some of whom were Rand followers since the 1960s, when her deputy Nathaniel Branden gave lectures at the McAlpin Hotel and other venues in Manhattan, usually on or around 34th Street. Rand lived nearby, in the dowdy Murray Hill neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, during the last three decades of her life. The offices of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, an early version of the Ayn Rand Institute, were in close proximity.
Murray Hill was the ground zero of Objectivism for Rand's last three decades in New York. Rand lived the life of a modest retiree or reasonably successful freelance writer, not a dowager. Her last home was in a nondescript apartment building at 120 East 34th Street, and she previously lived in a sprawling postwar residential monstrosity at 36 East 36th Street. Some of her closest followers, including Nathaniel and Barbara Branden (ranking second and third in the Objectivist hierarchy), lived nearby. I was surprised we weren't meeting somewhere in Murray Hill or near Wall Street, given their historical links to Objectivism and abundance of inexpensive eateries.
This was the same regular Objectivist gathering that was profiled in The New Yorker a year earlier. Expecting hard-eyed right-wing fanatics, I was surprised that these were mellow, low-key individuals. The atmosphere was academic, intellectual, about what one would find at a Mensa meeting. There was the same thrown-together quality. A former tennis pro here, a hedge fund manager there.
The Ayn Rand group meetings were an ad hoc successor to the Collective, which was the self-consciously ironic name that Rand and her acolytes gave to weekly gatherings at Rand's apartment in the 1950s and 1960s. The Collective is probably best known for being a kind of Objectivist Jordan River, at which Alan Greenspan was baptized in the faith. The direct Rand connection to Manhattan had eroded ever since the Comintern of the movement, the ARI, set up shop in the more congenially right-wing environs of Orange County, California, a few years after Rand's death.
The meetings had a structure. First the members of the group introduced themselves for the benefit of newcomers, and then there was general discussion as people dug into their late lunches. (Separate checks were given despite the size of the group, as was suitable for people who rejected collectivism in all its forms.) I noticed that introductions tended to dominate the meetings, as members used the opportunity to expound on the events of the day, discuss books they'd read, and announce upcoming events in the Objectivist community.
The August 2010 meeting was one day after the Glenn Beck Restoring Honor rally, and I expected the Randers to feel gratified and enthusiastic. Beck was a big fan of Rand. He mentioned her favorably on a number of occasions, and his attacks on churches promoting social justice could have easily emerged from Rand herself. But nobody talked about the rally initially. These were talkers, intellectuals, not rally-goers. Presiding was Benny Pollak, who was originally from Chile and worked for a Wall Street bank. He also was a founding member of the New York City Skeptics, which cast a gimlet eye at pseudoscience, quackery, and the like. I'd long been attracted to the skepticism movement, and it never occurred to me that there might be synergy between skepticism and Objectivism. The commonality was distaste for mysticism, which Rand mentioned frequently and with her customary contempt.
I sat between Fred and Don Hauptman, a cheery brown-bearded fellow. Don contributed occasional articles on Rand-related subjects to The New Individualist, an Objectivist newsletter, and once spent $50,000 at Christie's to buy the original galley proofs from an interview Rand gave to Playboy in 1964. "I'm comfortable," he explained to me. Opposite me sat Sandi, a young paralegal at an immigration law firm who had just read Atlas Shrugged a second time, "and I don't think there's anything in it I disagree with." A few seats over was Iris Bell, who had done some graphic design work for Rand, and was included in an oral history that was about to be published by the ARI. She and her husband, Paul, who first encountered Objectivism listening to a Nathaniel Branden radio broadcast in 1960, were the most senior Objectivists at the meeting. Their views, seasoned by years of study, were granted a certain deference.
Except for the Rand preoccupation of almost everyone in attendance, these were the kind of people one might find at any ordinary Manhattan dinner party, though the atmosphere was considerably more sober. The same could have been said about the Collective, I imagine, except for the added element of Rand herself dominating the proceedings. Most of the Collective members were friends and relatives of Barbara Branden, and many were Canadians like the Brandens. Winnipeg-born Leonard Peikoff was Barbara's cousin. Her best friend Joan Mitchell was briefly married to Greenspan, and brought the future Fed chairman into the fold. The demographics of both old and new Ayn Rand salons were uniformly Caucasian and largely Jewish. (Two of the Objectivists in attendance at the Midtown Restaurant had flirted with Orthodox Judaism before being rescued by Objectivism.) One difference was age: The latter-day Collectivists were considerably older than the twentysomethings who used to crowd around Rand.
It was plain to see that these were ordinary, apparently well-adjusted, somewhat brighter-than-average people who were secure and happy in their Objectivism. Adherence to Objectivism provided these people with a clear ideology and sense of purpose. The monthly meetings were a sanctuary from the collectivist horrors of modern American life, sometimes recounted in gruesome detail (such as one member's unpleasant encounter with ruffian union members on the subway).
The introductions melded into meandering conversations on various subjects. Andy George, a musician who was inspired to the Rand cause by Rush, a rock band whose members were Rand buffs, brought to the attention of the group an "unbelievable environmentalist program" he saw on the Planet Green cable TV channel called No Impact Man. It was a documentary about a New York family that for one year avoided all products that impacted negatively on the environment. Andy described an Internet post he had written excoriating this harmless little experiment as an example of hypocritical altruism at its worst. One low point, Andy said, comes when the subject of the documentary "is admonished by an overfed small-time Greenwich Village organic farmer whom [he] admires. He's quietly scolded for not being altruistic enough, like a scene between Ellsworth M. Toohey and Peter Keating"—two despised characters in The Fountainhead.
The group was generally optimistic about the future of Objectivism. Paul Bell pointed out that he was pleasantly surprised to learn that a late-night radio host, Doug McIntyre of "Red Eye Radio," had read all of Rand's books, and had subscribed to an Objectivist newsletter during her lifetime.
Benny, while acknowledging that Rand was ubiquitous, wondered whether people were interested in her philosophy or saw her only as a "flag-bearer for capitalism." It was a good question. Many people quoted Rand, to praise or discredit her, but how many actually were acquainted with her views?
Fred agreed that it was hard to get people to talk about the aspects of her doctrine that did not involve economics. "Not so many people are prepared to talk about epistemology, for example," he said. That troubled Benny, because in the national dialogue involving capitalism and the role of government, "there's never a discussion of what's right. Is it moral?" Income taxes, for instance. "They're immoral." Benny had a point: The national dialogue over taxes and spending rarely crossed over into a discussion of morality. Was it right to tax the rich at a higher rate than the poor? Was it wrong not to do so?
There was a murmur of agreement, and someone pointed out that many people nowadays are like Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead—"a practical guy who's not in touch at all with the abstract aspect of what he's doing"—thereby leaving himself open to being manipulated by the diabolical Ellsworth Toohey. (In the book, Toohey is a powerful architecture critic for Wynand's newspaper, and uses the column to smear Howard Roark and as a platform to advance the evils of altruism and collectivism. By the end of the book he turns his venom on Wynand and destroys his newspaper.)
After a time the conversation drifted to how the old immigrant self-help societies and Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a private safety-certification lab, exemplified how government doesn't need to be involved in ensuring the health and safety of the public. To the group, the solution seemed blindingly obvious. "Why not have a UL for cosmetics?" one group member suggested.
I didn't know much about UL, but I had fair knowledge of the Independent Bukarester Sick Aid Association, to which my father's family once belonged. It was founded in the early part of the twentieth century by Jewish immigrants from Bucharest, Romania. The group provided members with rudimentary health and burial benefits, not as a political statement but because these were poor people who had no access to health care. Rich people didn't need health and burial societies because they could afford doctors and cemetery plots. By the 1970s it lingered on as a burial society, having long before purchased plots at cemeteries in Queens and Long Island for use by its aging members. But the "sick aid" part of the association's mandate was long supplanted by private insurance and Medicare. I'm sure that if I'd suggested back then that "the society," as they called it, might solve the nation's health care crisis, I'd have been considered meshugah.7
Such was the reality of the old immigrant aid societies. They were formed out of necessity, when America had no social safety net for the poor and elderly, and they disbanded because the government did, eventually, provide medical benefits for senior citizens. They were relics of a bygone era. The Rand group, however, was hot on the idea. "When government doesn't want people to know about alternatives to government, they don't teach it in the schools," Fred pointed out. Someone else piped up that he took the Tenement Museum tour on the Lower East Side and that it was completely politicized, with progress in society credited only to the "regulators and government, and not the inventors and industrialists."
Eventually the group got around to discussing Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally. The warmth and fuzziness that I expected were absent. Beck's embrace of Rand wasn't mentioned by anyone.
The group was worried. The problem was fundamental, and seemed to be a real sticking point. "Glenn Beck keeps bringing up religion and mystical stuff," said one. "Nobody wants to question their premises at all," chimed in Judi, a technology project manager at a Wall Street firm and part-time actress. Larry, a construction manager from Long Island, pointed out that Beck once said that what people need to do is "not follow reason but turn to God. And that's very destructive."
Larry was referring to one of Objectivism's principal tenets, one of the characteristics that sets it apart from other right-wing credos. Objectivism is ardently atheistic, lumping in all religions with faith healers, mystics, and voodoo-doll-pin-stickers. Rand felt that religion was antithetical to reason, and couldn't stomach the altruistic doctrines of the major religions, especially Christianity.
It was plain that Beck's embrace of religion presented Ayn Rand acolytes with a serious dilemma. His support sold books and kept the Rand name in the public eye to an extent that nobody else could approach. In early 2010 he devoted an entire program to Atlas Shrugged, featuring Yaron Brook, Israeli-born executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. All the ARI's PR efforts, and even the movie version of Atlas Shrugged, could not come close to the publicity that Beck lavished on Rand.
I was hearing some of the same expressions of concern about Beck as one might encounter at a progressive political gathering. Judi wondered if Beck was "pushing people in the direction of rationality or in the direction of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Therefore ‘follow me, I can guide you.'" Rationality is one of the nonnegotiable components of Rand's belief system (irrational as much of her views might seem to non-acolytes).
"Glenn Beck scares me," said an older lady, a longtime follower of the movement. "If he came to power he would become a demagogue."
I sensed a kind of stirring here, a recognition of fundamental incompatibility that couldn't easily be overcome. My feeling was confirmed when Larry recounted how he formed a Tea Party group on Long Island in early 2009, just as the movement was beginning. In doing so, he said, he put aside his Objectivist ideology. "I had no one to discuss it with," he said. "I didn't know what to say to these people." He found that the Tea Party rank and file was upset with Obama, but that was about it. There was no philosophical content to their dissatisfaction. "I really wasn't sure. Were they really looking for individual rights and freedom, or were they looking for the resurrection of the Republican Party?" The more he talked to Tea Party people, the more his doubts grew.
"The religious people—I think a lot of them may be Objectivists at heart," said Benny, "but they still have to toe the Republican party line."
Paul Bell stood up to speak. "Rand says that change comes about between elections, not during the election itself, that it's what happens on the ground, between the elections," he said. "Yesterday I gave over three hours of my life to watch the entire Restoring Honor rally, to watch the entire proceedings, because I wanted to understand what was going on over there." Paul said that he might have found an event like that frightening a year or two before, but no longer. "I happen to like Glenn Beck on balance. There's a lot of things to dislike about him, not the least of which is his overt turn recently toward return to God. But Beck does appeal to a lot of people." Paul spoke admiringly of Sarah Palin. He liked her speech at the rally. "This is someone to take seriously. This is not a lightweight." Whether you like her or not, "that's where some help is coming as far as fighting off the push toward almost total collectivism."
"But don't you find her incredibly anti-intellectual, though?" asked Judi.
"No," Paul said firmly.
"No," said Paul. "Is she the world's leading intellectual or authority on the body politic? The answer there is obvious. But is she essentially a strong person of character who is unintimidated by what's going on?"
Paul's preliminary assessment of the rally was that Beck "had the right diagnosis but not necessarily the right cure." The problem, he said, was "that so many people feel the need for religion now," which he attributed to "a growing sense of amorality in the culture."
"As far as why I no longer feared what happened yesterday—listen up folks," Paul said. The cluttering of dishes and side talk stopped.
"Those people right now are our only hope. It's them that are going to save the country. There's more of them than there are of us."
"Who are them?" someone asked.
"The people who believe in God."
The group was momentarily stunned. It was like a Hassidic Jewish sect in Williamsburg hearing that the only hope for redemption could be found in the Baptist church down the street.
Paul continued, "It's a religious awakening as a stand-in for philosophical morality." There were murmurs of agreement. "The most urgent thing right now is to get rid of the cretins, in both political parties, who are hell-bent on destroying the country."
"The country?" an older lady interjected. "The world."
Copyright © 2012 by Gary Weiss