on 3 October 2010
For continental Europeans like me, there is a number of American conservative concepts which are hard to fully grasp. The "right to bear arms", the unabashed role of religion in public life and the complete and utter obsession with everything that relates to sexuality all takes some time to understand. But for many Europeans, perhaps the most alien ideal of the American right is the reverence of the capitalist system as virtuous in itself.
While Ayn Rand was not bothered so much by the first three ideas (although I imagine she was an avid supporter of the second amendment), she is the foremost and most militant flag bearer of capitalism and as such a great inspiration to many on the currently surging Tea Party-fringe. For those who like to understand these people beyond their slogans, goofery and mishaps, understanding Rand is an excellent place to start. As such, this is a very timely biography.
Fled from the just-turned communist Soviet Union as a persecuted Jew, Rand is appalled to her core by those in her idealized America who justify capitalism on merely practical grounds. To her, that is tantamount to treason to the great ideal of individualism. Provocatively revering "selfishness" and denouncing "altruism", she makes an interesting argument for those willing to try to understand her beyond her provocations. Capitalism, she argues, encourages and rewards the best, most talented and most "virtuous", and prevents the lazy and un-derserving from "looting" the productivity of the "hero's" of capitalism (to use a few Randian buzzwords). Now, most Europeans (and many Americans) will quickly dismiss such ideas as social Darwinism or even as a form of fascism. But to Rand and her (libertarian) followers, these ideas represent the very opposite of totalitarian ideology. To them it is the imposed welfare state that is unjust, taking away what contributing members of society create for themselves. While this world view can largely be dismissed as childishly naive, by turning the general notions of the fair society in the European-style welfare state on its head, Rand cs. make some valid and interesting points worth contemplating. To understand her ideas better, you can read Rand's own books. But to understand the context of this work and the psych of its fans, this biography by Anne Heller is an excellent place to start.
The story of Ayn Rand is as American as it can be. As an immigrant, she first tries to make it, of all places, in Hollywood. As far as Hollywood is political, it is not exactly known for its right wing political thinking and so the über-principled Rand struggles. Her story takes place in both America's left leaning years (New Deal, Great Society) and its right wing reaction to it (among which are the McCarty trials, in which Rand takes up a role herself). One reason why this book by Anne Heller is so great, is that it lets you witness this part of history from the perspective of the right, which is quite rare. Not that this book is political book by any standard - it is not. In fact, it is the neutral, factual observations of people and their ideas which makes this book so accessible to the - say - non-tea party reader. Intertwined with the very intimate story of the unusual personal lives of Rand and her allies, this makes for an unexpected page turner.
Ayn Rand and her ideas are scary and brilliant at the same time, which makes her a fascinating character. Extremely stubborn in both her craziness and her brilliance, she commands great respect as a strong woman standing by her often unpopular principles. At the same she deserves a heart-felt denunciation for being, well, a nasty person. Anne Heller's main premise is that Rand is a self contradictory person with a self-contradicting philosophy. Holding herself and others to the highest standard of truth, progress, rationality and individuality, she is completely intolerant of any criticism to her ideas: those who do not share her core beliefs are "unworthy" by definition. Rand is one of the most well-spoken atheists of her time (the Richard Dawkins of the previous century, if you will), and she is as anti-collectivist as anyone can be. At the same time there are her idolization of strong, arrogant men, her extreme black-and-white world view and her following that quickly turns into a cult with undeniably totalitarian traits (such as the excommunication for disobedience or for 'treason of the principles of Objectivism', which can mean pretty much anything not helpful to Rand's political or personal agenda). Rand severely punishes the independent thought that she champions at the same time.
While I would advise this book as a good read and an interesting introduction in American right wing psyche for Europeans especially, bear in mind that many on the American right have a love/hate attitude towards Rand in a way that will make them even more puzzling to the average European reader. Conservative Republicans admire Rand's defense of selfishness as a virtue, yet they fault and scold her for choosing rationality over superstition. Hence, Rand marks a fault line in the current American right (between the intellectuals and the christian grassroots), and therefore makes an interesting persona. With the Tea Party anti-government rhetoric growing strong, this book give some insight in where the hell these people and their ideas come from.
One critical remark I have of the book is that it seems to focus disproportionally on the perspectives of those who Heller leaned on most in her research, most notably Nathan and Barbara Branden. Therefore, I understand the commentators who claim factual errors or biases in this book. But Rand and her followers are also known for their maximal inflated egos and their complete lack of empathy for the perspective of others. As such, some of the reviews here are a very interesting addition to the book itself. As the cult of Ayn Rand lives on, I would advise anyone to revisit this page after reading Ayn Rand and the World She Made.
One critical remark I have of the book is that it seems to focus disproportionally on the perspectives of those who Heller leaned on most in her research, most notably Nathan and Barbara Branden. Therefore, I understand the commentators on Amazon's American site, who claim factual errors and biases in this book. But Rand and her followers are also known for their maximal inflated egos and their complete lack of empathy for the perspective of others. As such, some of the reviews on the American product page of Amazon.com are a very interesting addition to the book itself. As the cult of Ayn Rand lives on, I would advise anyone to visit that page after reading Ayn Rand and the World She Made.