What is going on in America today?
I've asked myself a lot in the last couple of years. I'm old enough to have vague memories of watching the 1968 Republican convention on TV, and how strange it all seemed, with the balloons and the boring speeches and the serious tone of it all. I have much clearer memories of the 1972 election, and the disastrous aftermath as first Agnew, then Nixon resigned, and America had her very first non-elected President. Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton...I've seen a lot of strange, strange things promulgated by our leaders, and I thought I'd seen it all.
And then came the 2010 elections, and I knew I was wrong.
The rollback on workers' rights in Wisconsin and New Hampshire...the removal of a mural on labor history in Maine...a presidential candidate advocating the repeal of child labor laws...bankers sipping champagne and laughing as demonstrators flooded Zuccotti Park....
Oddest of all was the sudden questioning of issues that had seemingly been settled decades ago, like child labor laws, worker's compensation, public pensions, the right of unions to negotiate, and the necessity of a social safety net. What was going on? Why were conservatives seemingly hellbent on dismantling every single protection the average citizen had won since the 1930s? And why were so many politicians acting as if nothing was wrong, that winning the midterm elections meant they had a mandate to repeal the 20th century?
There were hints in the signs at Tea Party rallies, in the viral marketing campaign for a terrible movie based on a book that my mother wouldn't have allowed in the house, in the confidence of the 1%. But last week I read a book that went a long way to answer my questions.
The book is Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, by financial reporter Gary Weiss. It's a lucid, thoroughly, and utterly terrifying investigation into the movement that is destroying America, bit by bit, in accordance with the vision of a woman who believed in nothing and no one except herself.
Gary Weiss is no stranger to the greed and venality of the financial industry; formerly a reporter for Business Week, Weiss has broken important stories like the 1991 bond trading scandal at Salomon Brothers, the infiltration of Wall Street by organized crime in the 1990s, and the poisonous influence of hedge funds on American finances. His previous two books, Born to Steal: When the Mafia Hit Wall Street, and Wall Street Versus America: The Rampant Greed and Dishonesty That Imperil Your Investments, pull no punches in describing how the financial industry looks after its own interests before those of its clients. It's little wonder that Weiss worked as the Muckraker columnist at Forbes.com from 2006 to 2008, or that he's decried Wall Street excesses like naked short selling and hedge funds.
Ayn Rand Nation is the logical extension of his previous work. Weiss uses the book's seventeen chapters, each concentrating on a single figure or event, to investigate the work of Russian-American author Ayn Rand (born Alyssa Rosenbaum) and her little known and increasingly pervasive influence on American life and thought. Rand, who came to the United States in 1925 on a student visa and never left, wrote novels, screenplays, and essays advocating what she called Objectivism: an atheistic philosophy that regarded reason as the highest virtue, called for self-reliance and "rational self-interest" in all aspects of life, and held that any sort of collective endeavor, whether governmental, ethnic, or other, was a form of "statism" that stifled individual rights. Works such as The Virtue of Selfishness decried altruism and self-sacrifice as evil, worthless, and utterly incompatible with human happiness.
Although this philosophy might seem incompatible with American values and history, Weiss's odyssey reveals that Objectivism has tapped a vein of good old American self-reliance. Through interviews with old school Objectivists, disgraced followers like Rand's former lover Nathaniel Branden, current Randian powers like Yaron Brook, and Tea Party activists like Mark Meckler and anti-Islamist Pamela Geller, Weiss unearths how thoroughly Rand's ideas have come to permeate the American Right. Lower taxes for the wealthy, a government responsible only for law enforcement and national defense, self-reliance so complete that the social safety net is yanked out from under the vulnerable, the sense that the vulnerable and the old and the sick have no one but themselves to blame if they fail...it's all there as person after person describes reading a Rand novel, feeling as if s/he'd found the answers s/he was seeking, and then adopting Rand's philosophy of selfishness as a way of life.
Weiss goes on to describe the (very minor) differences between two competing Rand Groups, the Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society, the attempts of both groups to work with similar but competing movements such as Libertarianism and the Tea Party, and the chilling possibility that these disparate movements could unite and become more than a passing force in American politics. At the same time, he makes it clear that some of the differences are deep enough that the odds of anything more than a temporary alliance are slim; Objectivism abhors what it calls "spiritualism" and advocates strict atheism, making it unlikely that the strong Christian strain in the Tea Party will allow itself to become co-opted by Objectivism. Even the Libertarians are not committed enough to individualism for the Ayn Rand Institute, even though Weiss learns the ARI is more than willing to use Libertarian politicians to achieve its goals.
Along the way, Weiss debunks the myth that the early Tea Party was permeated by Objectivism (Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler had never read Rand, while another Tea Party activist sees the books as advocating old fashioned American values like self-reliance and sticking up for the little guy, an interpretation that would have likely reduced Rand herself either to laughter or rage). At the same time, he confirms the truism about Objectivists reading Rand's books as teenagers or young adults; almost every true believer he encounters read Rand's novels in high school or college, with some (most notably Yaron Brook) undergoing a near-religious conversion from socialism or liberalism to Objectivism.
The conversion experience is not the only similarity to fundamentalist religion that Weiss finds in Objectivism; Rand's early followers, the Collective, engaged in punishments like shunning and banishment, regularly examined each other for deviations in thought, and willingly overlooked their leader's penchant for young lovers like Nathaniel Branden in their zeal. Even the split between the Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society resembles a religious schism, although facetious comparisons to the Judean Peoples Liberation Front vs People's Liberation Front of Judea pale when one realizes that ARI in particular is about as lighthearted as the East German Stasi. Objectivism has been compared by other writers to a cult, and after reading Ayn Rand Nation I can't help but agree.
Perhaps the most valuable, and chilling, part of the book is the chapter where Weiss, after months of trying, finally manages to interview ARI president Yaron Brook. Brook, a skilled debater and public speaker, makes it crystal clear that the ARI's ultimate goal is the complete dismantling of the American safety net and most of the functions of the American government. This is why the ARI has sent so many books to teachers and professors, why they confidently debated the liberal think tank Demos last year, and why they believe they are closer to achieving their goals than at any other time in American history. The ARI and other Objectivist groups have been planning their takeover of American culture, politics, and institutions for decades, and they have no intention of stopping until America is a land of glittering promise for the wealthy and the educated, and a hell of poverty, ignorance, and destruction for the less fortunate, the old, and the sick. Leading Objectivist and Rand disciple Alan Greenspan headed the Federal Reserve for decades and nearly managed to destroy the world financial system by applying her ideas, after all, so why shouldn't a world where young people read and believe in Rand's philosophy become a reality?
One question ran through my head as I read Ayn Rand Nation: why? Why would anyone, especially any American, actually think that selfishness was good? That letting the sick die, that letting the old starve, that letting our cities crumble and our democracy mutate into an oligarchy controlled by the ultra-rich, was a good thing? Ayn Rand herself was raised in a well off Jewish family and surely knew of the Jewish emphasis on charity, compassion, and caring for the sick and the weak. What had happened?
The answer is revealed by, of all people, filmmaker Oliver Stone. Stone worked for years to bring The Fountainhead, Rand's novel about a groundbreaking architect, to the screen with Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie as the leads. Stone tells Weiss that his version of the story would have stripped away the selfishness to the the core of Rand's vision: a man fighting for his ideals against long odds, with the ultimate goal of benefiting the less fortunate through his work. He goes on to explain that, as he saw it, Ayn Rand's vision of American government and institutions was irrevocably colored by her flight from Soviet Russia in the 1920s, when the idealism of the collectivist state yielded to the reality of Stalin's dictatorship. She was so traumatized by her family losing its possessions that she was never able to see government as anything but evil, and any efforts by government or the people to band together as the first step toward the horrors she had seen as a young woman.
And although neither Stone nor Weiss says this in so many words, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Rand, who fled Stalin for America, wanted nothing more than to restore her vanished childhood of wealth and privilege under the Czars in her adopted homeland.
The book ends with a dystopian epilogue describing an Objectivst America, one with no public services, no public transportation, no charity hospitals, no safety net, no food and drug laws, nothing but the ultra-wealthy in their gated communities and the undernourished, half-savage masses toiling for their masters. It is a profound un-American world, one closer to the hellish society of The Handmaid's Tale or Heinlein's If This Goes On - than the one the Founders dreamed of, and it is far closer to reality than most Americans know. Weiss urges his readers to oppose this by asking the question over and over again until the old American ideals of helping one's neighbor, of banding together for the common good, of striving toward a common goal, overcome the Objectivist ideal of working for one's self and only one's self:
What sort of America do you want? The world of the Founders, or the world of Ayn Rand?
Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 8:50 AM PT: Looks like I've gored an ox, because we have a real, live Objectivist visiting my little diary! Give JOHN DONAHUE a great big DKos welcome, and treat him as he'd treat a progressive who started trolling the ARI's website.