Ayn Rand -- back from the dead and still dead wrong
Like Frankenstein's monster, Rand's ideas are back from the dead and have attracted the attention of torch-bearing angry villagers like the teabaggers. Sales of her cinder-block-sized manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, are reportedly at their strongest ever (more on that later) and this Christmas we have not one but two Rand biographies from which to choose. (Apparently nothing says "magical holiday" like "angry screed.") There are also lots of "Who Is John Galt?" T-shirts and even the Atlasphere, an Ayn Rand dating and networking site.
So I felt compelled to find out what the buzz was all about.
As someone who gave up at the fourth Harry Potter because it got too long -- please, they are children's books -- I've never read Atlas Shrugged. Luckily, my buddy, professional smarty-pants Ellis Weiner did, describing Rand's equally adolescent fantasy as "an interminable three-way between Friedrich Nietzsche, L. Ron Hubbard and Judith Krantz."
Ellis recommended I simply read the hero John Galt's 60-page radio address and call it done. I did and I am. And now I know the answer to the question, "Who is John Galt?" He's a pompous, misguided bloviator. In other words, Glenn Beck.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Rand's theories, let me give you the Twitter version: She also wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. 'Nuff said.
It's easy to see why Rand's rants are in the news again. At a time when Obamacare has aroused fears of the United States becoming socialist (because wouldn't it be AWFUL if we all had affordable health care? Man, that would totally suck), her vision of an America in which Big Government shuts down Big Business could seem prophetic. According to Stephen Moore, senior editor at The Wall Street Journal, "If only Atlas were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster."
Let's see - deregulation of the mortgage industry got us into this mess, so the Libertarian answer is...MORE deregulation. Indeed, much of the blame for the recession goes to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who was an acolyte of -- oh, yeah -- Ayn Rand.
What's more, according to my buddy Ellis, Rand's whole premise is a house of cards because "in this anti-collectivist tirade, the heroes all gather and thrive and triumph in what is essentially a collective." So the answer to rejecting a socialist government is to literally run for the hills and start a socialist commune.
Then why is Rand so popular again? Well, she is and she isn't.
Yes, sales of Atlas Shrugged have gone up in the past few years, probably due to all the media coverage of its 50th anniversary two years ago. According to the director of the Ayn Rand Institute, which is committed to indoctrinating students to Rand's ideas, in the last 52 years Atlas Shrugged has sold 6 million copies. Compare that to 85 million copies sold of the Twilight series, and you begin to see that gas-baggy John Galt has ten times less impact on the youth of America than a teen vampire who refuses to bang his girlfriend.
Similarly, Rand's fans on Facebook number just under 30,000. Sure, that's 10,000 more than Rand's contemporary Jack Kerouac, but keep in mind that self-proclaimed D-lister Kathy Griffin has over 400,000. And the Atlasphere has just 20,297 members -- well, actually, 20,298 because I signed up to lurk, only to find the site as dull as John Galt. (Hey, Randroids, if you see GaltByAssociation, say hi!)
Sure, the renewed curiosity in Rand happened as a direct result of the recession; but not in the way her adherents believe. What's happening is that the same extremists who feel that a sitting governor who resigned for no particular reason in midterm is qualified to lead the free world are also rallying around Rand's fear-mongering vision of the Big, Bad Government. And the vastly underemployed media, in an effort to satisfy the ravenous 24/7 news feed, can't stop blogging about both of them, which only makes their supposed movements seem more legitimate.
But like Sarah Palin, Rand's limited appeal and extensive PR means that all Atlas will be able to do is shrug, wondering what all the fuss is about.
And that, my friends, is The Upside.