Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ayn Rand: The “Philosopher” of the Radical Right

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum was a Russian Jew, the daughter of a pharmacist who led a very bourgeoisie life as a young child, as pictured below.  But she spent her adolescent years learning first hand about the 1917 Russian Revolution.  Her family lost almost everything during the Revolution, which was the source of her venom against Communism. In high school she determined that she was an atheist and that she valued reason above any other human attribute.  After Revolution, universities were opened to women, including Jews, allowing Rosenbaum (later Rand) to be in the first group of women to enroll at Petrograd State University, where she studied in the department of social pedagogy, majoring in history. At the university she was introduced to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, who would form two of her greatest influences and counter-influences, respectively. A third figure whose philosophical works she studied heavily was Friedrich Nietzsche, the highly favored political philosopher of the Nazis whose Übermensch was required reading in Hitler’s Reich.  

She subsequently studied for a year at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Leningrad.  In 1925, Rosnbaum (Rand) was granted a visa to visit American relatives.  Intent on staying in the United States to become a screenwriter, she lived for a few months with relatives in Chicago, one of whom owned a movie theater and allowed her to watch dozens of films for free. She then set out for Hollywood, California. She struggled in Hollywood and took odd jobs to pay her basic living expenses. A chance meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille led to a job as a spear-carrying extra in his film, The King of Kings, and to subsequent work as a junior screenwriter. While working on  DeMille’s film she met an aspiring young actor, Frank O'Connor; the two were married on April 15, 1929. Rand became an American citizen in 1931. Taking various jobs during the 1930s working for a time as the head of the costume department at RKO Studios.

When she began attempting to publish her writing, she took the assumed name, Ayn Rand, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear. Rand's first bestseller, The Fountainhead, received far fewer reviews than We the Living, her first unsuccessful novel, and reviewers' opinions were mixed. Mimi Reisel Gladstein later wrote, "reviewers seemed to vie with each other in a contest to devise the cleverest put-downs," calling it "execrable claptrap" and "a nightmare;" they said it was "written out of hate" and showed "remorseless hectoring and prolixity." Author Flannery O'Connor wrote in a letter to a friend that, "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail." The tenor of the criticism for her first nonfiction book, For the New Intellectual, was similar to that for Atlas Shrugged, with philosopher Sidney Hook likening her certainty to "the way philosophy is written in the Soviet Union", and author Gore Vidal calling her viewpoint "nearly perfect in its immorality". Her subsequent books got progressively less attention from reviewers. 

Though Rand perceived herself as a philosopher (she called her theory Objectivism) and many of her Right Wing enthusiasts describe her that way, she was mainly a screenwriter who also wrote two novels that sold a large number of copies. It may be useful to bear in mind that among best-sellers have been Think and Grow Rich,  The Horse Whisperer and The Happy Hooker.  Somewhat charitably, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in its brief article about her described her as having outlined a comprehensive philosophy, including an epistemology and a theory of art. There is no mention of her political philosophy.   She is seen by some within literature, as being a staunch feminist, very much at odds with the values of most Right Wing conservatives. She is a favorite of the Right Wing because the hero and leader of the Capitalists’ who go on strike in the Fountainhead, John Galt, describes the strike as "stopping the motor of the world" by withdrawing the minds of the individuals most contributing to the nation's wealth and achievement. With this fictional strike, Rand intended to illustrate that without the efforts of the rational and productive, the economy would collapse and society would fall apart.

So, we have the somewhat odd situation in which Ayn Rand, Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, a Jewish atheist-feminist novelist screenwriter, who was a champion of objective analysis (unlike most Republicans who pay little heed to objective evidence or logic) is the philosophical darling of the American Right Wing, though few people who consider them philosophers by profession would see her as a significant philosopher.  She serves a practical purpose for the likes of Paul Ryan, who I understand, requires his Congressional staff to read Fountainhead, as a means of attempting to promulgate his radical views.

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