I'll Tell You Who John Galt Is (A Defense of Ayn Rand From Someone Who Is Not a Close-Minded Idiot)

Ayn Rand has gotten a bad rap.  Liberals generally hate her, and, because they tend to dominate literary communities, she hasn’t exactly gotten a fair shake in the literary world.  For proof, just check out the dichotomy between the "critics' list" and the "readers' list" of the 100 Best Novels of All Time at Modern Library: Rand isn't mentioned at all by the critics, but four of her novels make the readers' top 10, including spots #1 and #2.  With buzz starting about Atlas Shrugged: Part I the movie set to premiere on April 15th (har har), I anticipate a renewed onslaught of Rand criticism in the media.  And with a friend of mine already denouncing her other magnum opus, The Fountainhead, this week on his blog, I thought it might be time for me to make a preemptive strike.

Rand's big four.
First, let’s get the writing style out of the way: it’s true that Rand is verbose, and that her prose is sometimes clumsy. She’s not who you read if you’re looking to revel in the poetry of word combinations or vocabulary. As a (wannabe) writer, I love nothing more than reading high quality writing, even if I disagree with it. That’s why I pour over my Vanity Fair each month (sometimes with a dictionary), and why I read Wallace Stevens before bed (always with a dictionary).

But the manipulation of language is not Rand’s province and it is not her purpose, so to roast Rand for being a just a “good” writer and not some reinventor of language is to severely underestimate her influence.   It's probably unfortunate that she’s not a literary savant, but there are lots of literary savants who write beautifully and never say anything worth saying.  No one can deny that Rand, for better or worse, has a point to make.  And I think that carves a place for her in the canon. 

Rand is also criticized for the (sometimes violent, irresponsible, insanity-inducing) romances in her books.  What does The Fountainhead rape scene say about women, and what does the extramarital affair between Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged say about Rand's morals?  I think it's beside the point.   What Rand did was combine her serious political treatise with the sassy, saucy elements of paperback novel.  Does that dilute her political purpose, or make it less legitimate?  I’m not sure.  But I do know it makes her books easier to read, jucier, more fun.  And with thousands of pages to get through, its not unwise to toss your readers a sex scene to keep them plowing through.

You think Sawyer was in it for the "Objectivism?"
If we can just scrape through the melodramatic subplots, the hyperbole, the heavy-handed speeches, we can get to the meat of what people love about Rand's books, and what lingers years after reading her.  Rand's books, particularly her two epic milestones, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, are, at their core, parables.  They’re morality tales played to the extreme to make a point.   Atlas Shrugged, through all of its long-winded landscapes and knotted romances, ultimately posits this question: what if one day all of the workers, all of the people who contribute raw effort to society – ideas, creativity, hard labor – got tired of all of the critics, the ingrates, the politicians, the people whose job it was to demean and destroy the work, people who disrespected the very notion of work, got so tired that they just left.  Left.  Said, "to hell with you," and started their own society, where everybody worked and there was no one to stand around and point out what was wrong and ask for handouts.  It's an interested philosophical query, right?  If people demand more handouts, how about no handouts?  What happens then?

Rand: warm and fuzzy.
Rand isn’t actually suggesting all the productive people of the world go live in the secret, Bond-villain-like underground lair like they did in Atlas Shrugged (and it’s a good thing, because as a soul-sucking lawyer-cum-writer, I definitely wouldn’t be invited). What she is suggesting is that the people who are the biggest critics are often the smallest actual producers of useful things (this is played out literally in The Fountainhead, where the hero of the story is an architect and the villian of the story is an architectural critic, and played out more metaphorically in Atlas Shrugged, where the heroes are railroad magnates and their laborers, and the villains are socialist boardroom brats).  Rand is suggesting that maybe all the inert, redundant people who say the hardworking handouts aren’t enough and aren’t enough and still aren't enough should think about what would happen if the people giving out the handouts didn’t want to play anymore, picked up their toys, and went home.

Importantly, the dichotomy Rand draws was never between the rich and the poor; this is a common misconception perpetuated by reliance on sound bites and stereotypes of Rand's work. Most of Rand's heroes are either poor, or started out that way; it's her villains who are the entitled upper class.  Instead, the line Rand draws is between the working and the idle, the principled and the unprincipled.  Her heroes are extremely ethical, but they adhere to their own, internal sense of ethics – they are unwavering in their tenacity and their stubbornness and their insistence on doing only that which they can stand by proudly.  And her point, I think, is that you can be deeply moral and deeply ethical and deeply responsible and do it for yourself and your own pride and self-worth and not for anybody else's gratitude.  Rand famously decries altruism, which is largely responsible for her misjudged reputation.  But she doesn’t hate altruism because she thinks you should be a jerkwad to other people; she just thinks you should be a good person for yourself -- because it's the right thing to do, because you can be proud of it -- not for someone else’s sake.

The truly terrible film version of The Fountainhead
Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead, famously remarks, “I don't give or ask for help.” Somehow, all the Rand critics out there have stopped listening after the first part.   Critics lambast Rand for saying people shouldn’t help their fellow man, but they entirely miss the second part, which is much more important.   Roark isn’t going to ask you for help, either.  In fact, it's so fundamental to his nature to not accept handouts that he can’t even bring himself to give them.  Roark will insist on working for whatever he gets, and he will, likewise, insist that you work for whatever you get from him.  This isn’t denying you something you need, this isn’t being mean or selfish or cruel.  This is Roark giving every man as much respect as he has for himself, giving every man the opportunity to honestly work for what he’s given.

The more I read about Rand on the internet, the less I understand how everyone misses that part.  Much more than swearing “I’ll never give you anything,” Roark is swearing “I’ll never ask you for anything that I haven’t earned." How can Rand's critics focus only on the “won’t give” and not on the “haven’t earned” part?  Rand’s world promises you everything if you're just willing to try, to strive, to put in the effort; yet some people revile her because her world doesn't give them anything for free.  So, to the people who say Rand is selfish, she would say, you are lazy.  You could have all the world if you worked for it.
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Preston
AUTHOR
March 18, 2011 at 12:30 AM delete

Please, please, please, at some point, play (preferably) or have someone play Bioshock for you. It's an amazing story of how a Randian utopia can fail. Spielberg approved!

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Brad
AUTHOR
March 18, 2011 at 11:12 AM delete

Good point preston. I typically reserve judgment on a certain philosophical point of view until I can see the effects of it played out in a video game, preferably a first person shooter developed by a company called Irrational Games.

Truthfully, I've rejected capitalism as I've lost every game of Monopoly I've ever played and I've become a pacifist after last weekend's humiliating defeats in back-to-back games of Battleship and Risk.

I won't even address the civil rights implications of the time I tried to play Reversi/Othello.

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Anonymous
AUTHOR
March 18, 2011 at 11:32 AM delete

Alternate titles: "The Bitch Is Back (I'm Talking About Ayn Rand, Jerks); An Ayn Rand Asshole Says What?; there has to be another. But, you should read this: http://www.gq.com/entertainment/books/200911/ayn-rand-dick-books-fountainhead

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Scott
AUTHOR
July 14, 2011 at 3:20 PM delete

"What Rand did was combine her serious political treatise with the sassy, saucy elements of paperback novel. Does that dilute her political purpose, or make it less legitimate? I’m not sure." The answer is, no, it does not. I’m actually not sure how someone could make a cogent argument stating that Rand’s plots detract from the message. Even if a plot were so bad that it forces one to put a book down, the message would not suffer. Sure, the vehicle and its efficacy could be questioned, but the message itself remains in tact.

"If we can just scrape through the melodramatic subplots, the hyperbole, the heavy-handed speeches, we can get to the meat of what people love about Rand's books, and what lingers years after reading her." Why would we do this? There is beauty in the melodrama, the hyperbole and the heavy-handed speeches. Rand’s weaving in and out of philosophy and rich plot is magnificent; I don’t understand why we’d want to give that up. Sure, we may at times want to read straight philosophy without plot, but I’d argue that we almost never want to---and never do---read plot without philosophy.

Your point on the false dichotomy between rich and poor is so perfect and poignant, Alison. Rand’s art suffers because idiot conservatives go on talk shows and say things, citing Rand's work, that make no sense and probably have Rand rolling around in her grave. That rube McCain has more than once incorrectly quoted Rand's work only to infuriate the left and further mislead the right. In a description of Roark's favorite construction worker who is, by all means blue collar, Rand writes: "His view of the world was simple: there were the able and there were the incompetent; he was not concerned with the latter." That's about the most elaborate encomium anyone in any of her books receives. And it has nothing to do with wealth.

I’m trying to keep this short, but I could go on at great length about this subject. The treatment that Rand receives is, I believe, symptomatic of our country’s everyday level of discourse. And you know how I feel about that.

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Anonymous
AUTHOR
November 14, 2011 at 7:05 PM delete

1. Funny, the mention of Ayn Rand topping the "reader's list" at #1 and #2, but failing to mention that L. Ron Hubbard's "Battleship Earth" is a close third.

2. The idea of human beings being cast in simple black and white terms is disturbing to me, and strangely right-wing (i.e. poor=lazy, welfare=handout, gov't programs=waste.)great ideas and innovations can sometimes come from truly lazy people. Conversely, sometimes the hardest working people can bring about the ultimate demise of a good productive corporate culture. to draw a line between the idle and hardworking is impossible, as it is to draw a line between the principled and unprincipled. remember, Steve jobs was once an unemployed, hippie, college dropout. Ms rowling of Harry potter fame was once a single unemployed mom on welfare. tell Colin Powell he didn't deserve to be allowed into the military in the name of "equal opportunity." Ayn Rand and all of her shallow followers= douchbags

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Anonymous
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October 25, 2013 at 3:22 PM delete

“I don't give or ask for help.”

The problem with this statement is that everyone needs help to exist in modern society and everyone receives help, even if they don't "ask" for it. Maybe when we all lived in caves and made our own tools and found our own food then only the strongest survived and people truly lived without "help." But unless you are entirely self-sufficient and grow your own food, create your own power, and manufacture everything you use, you've got "help."

Roads=help. Police=help. fire departments=help. public schools=help. Air traffic control=help. public utilities=help.

No man is an island.

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