April 22, 2011
If Ayn Rand were alive today, would she be a member of the Tea Party?
The controversial writer – whose philosophy, Objectivism , advocates the "virtue of selfishness" – has long been something of a literary hero to American conservatives and the rise of the rightwing populist movement has only worked to increase Rand's popularity.
Tea Party members can't get enough: references to the writer's works appear on their protest signs; political favourites such as Rand Paul namedrop her; and they seem staunchly devoted to promoting the first instalment of the three-part film adaptation of her epic tome, Atlas Shrugged , which opened modestly, if not quietly, last weekend in around 300 theatres across the US. The conservative grassroots group Freedomworks took the helm in promoting the film , sharing the online trailer with its mailing list and hyping the movie's opening day – 15 April, America's tax day.
The low-budget movie with its cast of nobodies received resolutely scathing reviews – it garnered a dismal 7% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes – yet, through conservative support, it still managed to pull in enough revenue to justify expanding the film to more screens. By the end of April, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 could be on as many as 1,000 screens.
Despite the buzz, rigorous devotees of Objectivism aren't likely to appreciate Atlas's big screen treatment. For the uninitiated, Atlas Shrugged depicts a dystopian US where irrational government officials work with greedy socialist corporate heads to impose draconian regulations and taxes on those who have achieved success through hard work and natural talent. The novel's heroine is Dagny Taggart, an ambitious railroad executive, who teams up with Henry Rearden, an innovative metal manufacturer, to set out to save the country from being crushed by the collectivist government. Along the way, they partake in rambling diatribes about the glory of achievement and the nobility of pursuing greatness. It's rousing stuff – the first time, anyway – until it's belabored again and again throughout the novel. Sound familiar?
The sections of the book that made it into Part 1 certainly seem written directly for current conservative interests, namely that a small section of the population must fight against the oppressive restrictions and heavy taxation of a socialist government. Yet, probe beyond the triteness of Rand's plot and the fragmented rendering of her philosophy, and striking discrepancies between her Objectivism and conservative sentiment become apparent.
Yes, Rand was a staunch advocate of capitalism and limited government. She was also a staunch advocate of abortion rights and sexual hedonism, and an atheist to boot, which her conservative admirers have largely ignored. Rand and her characters maintained that morality wasn't something that could be imposed by outside institutions, rather should be a consequence from individuals acting in their own rational self-interest . Which, obviously, steps way out of line with the thinking of the Tea Party, which encompasses the religious right .
As Jennifer Burns, the author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right , has said, today's conservative pundits have found that they "can use the parts of Rand they want to use and not engage the rest" . Which is where one of the most glaring incongruities between Tea Partiers and Rand's philosophy appears: Rand, almost above all else, championed the individual over the collective. The notion that a populist movement is using her name and economic philosophies to mobilise their broader political goal is laughable. During her life, Rand was outspoken in her disgust for Republicans, feeling that they were soft on individuals' rights. Today, it is only Randians who can argue that her philosophy is being inadequately promoted.
However, there is a silver lining for Rand purists: while the movie's publicity has managed to stir up paltry interest among cinema-goers, it has succeeded in awakening a larger interest in the literary work. Rand's novel has sold around 100,000 copies a year in the US since its publication, and since the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party, that number has increased five-fold. The movie's publicity has only propelled sales yet higher – the opening weekend saw the book version of Atlas Shrugged shoot to the No 4 spot on Amazon's bestseller list .
So, while the Tea Party's promotion of Rand has made a splash, Objectivists can take comfort knowing that the impact has largely been on book sales. If one has to delve into Randian territory, it's better to go straight to the master's words rather than a choice interpretation of them or convenient soundbites.