“There are storm warnings ahead...”
“Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’ is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night. Caesars are stirring in the Forum. There are storm warnings ahead.”
— Gore Vidal in 1961, as quoted in 2013 by Michael Lind
I have met Ayn Rand. She recorded a weekly radio commentary; I was the recording engineer. She was a heavy smoker and spoke with a broad, husky comic opera accent not unlike Professor Kropotkin on the “My Friend Irma” radio show. My relationship with the founder of Philosophical Objectivism was not that of Alan Greenspan and her retinue of sycophants, more like that of her drycleaner, grocer, perhaps the resident taxidermist on hand to curate her ¾ mink. Except in the pounding heat of high August, that mink was de rigueur for the uptown hike from the Nathaniel Branden Institute to 39th Street and WBAI. Ayn Rand, who would become a Tea Party madonna for the class wars of the 21st Century.
“Rand was a Russian from a prosperous family who emigrated to the United States. Through her novels (such as Atlas Shrugged) and her nonfiction (such as The Virtue of Selfishness) she explained a philosophy she called Objectivism. This holds that the only moral course is pure self-interest. We owe nothing, she insists, to anyone, even to members of our own families. She described the poor and weak as ‘refuse’ and ‘parasites’, and excoriated anyone seeking to assist them. Apart from the police, the courts and the armed forces, there should be no role for government: no social security, no public health or education, no public infrastructure or transport, no fire service, no regulations, no income tax. [...] It is not hard to see why Rand appeals to billionaires. She offers them something that is crucial to every successful political movement: a sense of victimhood.”
— George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 6th March 2012.
In the 60s, WBAI Pacifica Radio—30 East 39th Street—was the place for any self-respecting free speech acolyte to be. The Second City with George Coe, Richard C. Neuweiler and Nancy Weyburn delivered satire and commentary along with Severn Darden, Rene Santoni, Don Calfa and Lord Buckley. Eric Bentley expounded on Brecht. John Corigliano was the music maven. John Lindsay was our congressman.
WBAI occupied the top floors of a 4-story townhouse in the heart of New York’s Silk Stocking District—thus called for the divorcées who lived alone on sumptuous alimony, shadowed by their ex-husbands’ private eyes lest they get caught with a supernumerary gentleman under the bed. David Amram played Lady Bird Johnson in our parallel spoof on the Democratic National Convention—The Big Tune Out. There was a wide spectrum of opinion among our commentators; Harry Schwartz and Dick Elman interviewed Malcolm X while Richard Lamparski interviewed Connie Boswell. WBAI lost a microphone cord at the Audubon Ballroom, cut in two by a shotgun blast when Malcolm X was shot. Ayn Rand struggled uptown from the Nathanial Brandon Institute on East 34th Street to hold forth on philosophical objectivism.
Ayn Rand rambled and wrote, working Hollywood and Gotham, perhaps dreaming that she would be the darling of disaffected divorcées with time on their hands in the coming century. And even death—thirty-five years ago at this writing—would not hold her down. The landscape where the dramas of New York’s then trendy midtown played themselves out is compelling (see Mrs. Hudson below) at the very least. Follow some of the hyperlinks on this page and for a tunnel vision view of Manhattan (and the world—you know, the pink places with the funny names out past New Jersey) of the 1960s.
Atlas Shrugged, the movie (2011)
John Galt: We’ve been serving the Colorado Region since my great-great-grandfather ran this company. What happened to loyalty, Eddie?
Eddie Willers: Perhaps the problem is we haven’t updated that branch since your father ran the company.
Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, the second of her major works. The Fountainhead, published in May 1943, portrays a United States crippled by welfare statism in which heroic billionaires fight back against a nation of slackers. The billionaires, whom she portrays as an Atlas holding the world aloft, go on strike with the result that the nation collapses. It is rescued, through self-loving, gouging and malfeasance on a planetary scale, by one of the over-achieving 0.1%, John Galt. All of which goes to illustrate that at the moment of conception the parents-to-be are too busy screwing to take proper precautions and hence inadvertently pass on to their children, along with race, sex, handedness and eye color an endless capacity for self-delusion.
John Galt (of Atlas Shrugged) and Howard Roark, the architect hero of The Fountainhead, have achieved global gonzohood by taking what they wanted without going through intermediaries. Thanks to the Fountainhead movie, we get a peek at Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal stripping off for action. Okay, so he’s a wee rough. Everything is clean, in the shadows, and no messy cleanup after. ‘She asked for it’—the rape scene from The Fountainhead:
“She turned the light on in the bathroom. She saw herself in a tall mirror. She saw the purple bruises left on her body by his mouth. She heard a moan muffled in her throat, not very loud. It was not the sight, but the sudden flash of knowledge. She knew that she would not take a bath. She knew that she wanted to keep the feeling of his body, the traces of his body on hers, knowing also what such a desire implied. She fell on her knees, clasping the edge of the bathtub. She could not make herself crawl over that edge. Her hands slipped, she lay still on the floor. The tiles were hard and cold under her body. She lay there till morning.”
“They had been united in an understanding beyond the violence, beyond the deliberate obscenity of his action; had she meant less to him, he would not have taken her as he did; had he meant less to her, she would not have fought so desperately. The unrepeatable exultation was in knowing that they both understood this.”
Not nice, rape. But not awful writing. Not really. She tells the story and fills in her two-dimensional heroes with a world view that would tickle a medieval warlord. See Romain Gary’s The Dance of Genghis Cohn for a full exploration of vengance served cold. Considering the tonnage generated by her crackpot philosophizing, Ayn Rand could have taken years and generated thousands of pages of writing, no picnic. She did it; it’s a thing some of us are driven to do. Yet others hail a cab: “The Belmont, driver, and step on it.” This was the 40s; sex had to be with a chuckle or it didn’t get on the screen:
At home, when the lights are dimmed—dead or not, the she-bear snarls in her lair.
So he lured me down to his apartment. He made me sit on his piano bench. Then he made me play Chopsticks. Then suddenly he turned at me. His eyes bulging. He was frothing at the mouth. Just like The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
— The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Ayn Rand is experiencing a vogue with the economic collapses of the 21st Century. While people in the enlightened world will admit to some level of compassion, social Darwinism is no longer shameful. I mean, genocide is so passé—the NASCAR of ethnic cleansing. Think depleted uranium bullets and robot drones. And really, whatever happened to the Neocons? The closest parallel to the psychic pull of the Ayn Rand cultists is the never-ending fascination with Illuminati, Knights Templar, and Qaballah—the blood and guts of escapist journalism (think supermarket tabloids and Fox News) and cable TV (think TLC and the Discovery Channel).
To the Editor, “Atlas Shrugged” is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and unrelenting purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfilment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. Mr. Hicks suspiciously wonders “about a person who sustains such a mood through the writing of 1,168 pages and some fourteen years of work.” This reader wonders about a person who finds unrelenting purpose personally disturbing.
—Alan Greenspan, New York
In 1966, Ronald Reagan wrote in a personal letter, “Am an admirer of Ayn Rand.” Today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) credits Rand for inspiring him to go into politics, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) calls Atlas Shrugged his “foundation book.” Then congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) says Ayn Rand had a major influence on him, and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an even bigger fan. A short list of other Rand fans includes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Christopher Cox, chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission in George W. Bush’s second administration; and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. In the 1950s, Ayn Rand read aloud drafts of what was later to become Atlas Shrugged to her “Collective,” nickname for her inner circle of young individualists, which included Alan Greenspan, who would serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006. [Ayn Rand Made US a Selfish, Greedy Nation—Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet]
Ayn Rand was to me a science fiction writer, a member of a clan I trot with when pressed to give my stories a label beyond ‘stories,’ ‘magical realism,’ ‘fantasy’ and the like. I read her stuff when I was a teenager and thought, ‘Weird.’ There was an overall yuckiness to the characters’ interactions. These guys didn’t only manipulate bystanders—for sex, food, a higher purchase on the ladder of success, they used them. No asking, no playacting, pretense. They just took. A disappointed Master of the Universe is no fun to be around—he will rape any warm body, maim, destroy and lay waste; this is her subtext. Ayn Rand was basically a Libertarian with the cloak of good-fellowship ripped away.
The chicken is a ventriloquist
To be clear, I didn’t start out on this piece with the intention of turning out an appreciation of Rand. Objectivist philosophy, aside from the Leni Riefenstahl bundishness of its cover art, is more silly than majestic. But Ayn Rand was a good writer. Ow! That smarts, and I anticipate some flak on that, mostly from the old guard lit for lit’s sake folk. So be it. I’m just an old lefty grading Rand’s ouvre as though it was Sci-Fi pulp. Like L. Ron Hubbard, one of the truly great pulp fiction writers. He too founded a quack discipline, Dianetics, which some consider cult-like. Are Scientologists the nut jobs the Objectivists are? I doubt it. I’ll have to ask L. Ron and Rand should I meet them skateboarding in the afterlife. And I hope they would think well of my stuff, too; I lean to the florid and wordy. Think it’s easy to write crap? Good crap? Think again. Ayn Rand signed her work (with ‘Ayn Rand,’ a pen name) and had a publicly listed telephone. Billy the Kid and Samuel Langhorne Clemens used aliases and telegrams. My thought was always: She can’t really believe that crap, who’s she sucking up to anyway? This is how we learn; see self-delusion above. To quote Henry L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Here insert testosterone-clotted mutterings from the back of the hall: She’s a woman; she couldn’t have thought all this up by herself. Are they jealous? Probably. Thus a repeating pattern of Great White Lodge, Knights Templar, Catholic and/or Jewish plotters, the tooth fairy, etc. Your Tooth Fairy scenario, a ventriloquist in the woodpile. Dwight D. Eisenhower may have let something slip in his farewell address to Congress, about a military-industrial complex that would claim “our toil, resources, and livelihood.” And what happened to the 34th President? Dead. Templars got him; told you so. There was a cautionary film on the dangers of appearing too smart—Alphaville, by Jean-Luc Godard, wherein a US agent battles hegemonists on a space station. A 1965 reviewer called it “Tarzan vs. IBM.”
There is no sure-fire way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the corrosive influences of Ayn Rand and her ilk. For temporary relief try a tinfoil hat, go to the basement and lie on the floor, or send fifty bucks to the Knights Templar. (See Conspiracy Theorists below.)
In the annals of radio, I was a studio engineer at WNEW, 565 Fifth Ave (“There’s only one double-you, any-double-you, eleven-three-oh in New York.”), and by fits and starts, WBAI-FM. The year was 1964. In true Pacifica listener-sponsored style, the WBAI staff had demanded the removal of a derelict station manager. Resignations were tendered. The board fired the station manager and accepted the resignations. I walked uptown to WNEW and returned in six months.
It was a weekday afternoon, and Pete Myers, the announcer on duty, pulled a piece of PSA copy out of a three ring binder, extracted the paper from its sheet protector, and shredded it into confetti, which he allowed to fall to the floor. The night maintenance crew would get it. “But aren’t you supposed to...” I quavered. Supposed to read it, I meant. Wasn’t there a law? Under the FCC Rules & Regulations of that day, the engineer could be culpable later on for any transgression of protocol that happened on his shift. Just in case they needed to fire someone.
The public service announcement (free to the public, i.e. VFW bingo, Girl Scouts and Red Cross blood drives) had been a hustle for the latest Objectivist lecture series. Through the studio intercom, not on the air, Pete said, “This is bullshit. What a bunch of chiselers. Let ’em buy their time.” I nodded.
Watson: [the doorbell rings] Were you
Holmes: Not at this time of night.
Watson: Perhaps Mrs Hudson is entertaining.
Holmes: I’ve never found her so.
— The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (film 1970)
It would seem that there are no easy answers. I discovered that face-to-face I really liked Ayn Rand. The same pityless goddess of the new right could say this in her obituary for Marilyn Monroe:
“The evil of a cultural atmosphere is made by all those who share it. Anyone who has ever felt resentment against the good for being the good, and has given voice to it, is the murderer of Marilyn Monroe.”
— Ayn Rand
“Who’ll soon forget?
I, said the Page, beginning to fade,
I’ll be the first to forget.”
— Norman Rosten, Who Killed Norma Jean?
Love and hate are just too damn easy. Great hatreds just as great loves are for the powerful and the wise. I am neither. I don’t think I will be ranting at the Neocons today—crazy people are crazy all the time. Tomorrow, perhaps.
The Cult of Rand and Bizarroworld:
That John Galt is such a hunk!
My take on the Illuminati: Everyone suspects that there are puppet masters controlling things.
The Backstory: Why did Alan Greenapan fail to act?
Big Sister Is Watching You by Whittaker Chambers: the Dec. 28, 1957 National Review
Ayn Kampf—Ayn Rand in the 21st Century (comic strip): Wonkette.com
Slavery never happened (Salon.com reprint from Alternet)
Ayn Rand on Marilyn Monroe
H.L. Mencken quote:
In many books of quotations and on thousands of websites H.L. Mencken is credited with the famous quote “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Most sources fail to mention that this “quote” is actually the traditional paraphrase of what Mencken actually wrote — not a true quote. It’s based on something the acerbic journalist, editor and social critic said in his column in the September 19, 1926 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune.
What Mencken actually said:
“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. [...] The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”
Illuminati, Priory of Sion, from the weird to the silly—watch your step:
The Da Vinci Code (Last Trumpet Ministries),
The Da Vinci Code (Catholic Answers, Inc.),
Priory of Sion (Cult of the Black Virgin, etc.),
Conspiracy Theorists: Foil blankets and banana plugs from Radio Shack
Mary, Mary: (It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, a Libertarian take on Objectivism) Click around inside the link. There’s an ebook somewhere on GooglePlay: “I remembered the way it used to be: every spring they’d erected a giant statue of the Virgin Mary in a corner of the field and smothered it with tons of flowers...”
Rosicrucians: The Real Secret Society Behind the Da Vinci Code