Ayn Rand (1905-82), the Russian-born high priestess of "rational self-interest," as she called her philosophy, has always struck me as the kind of thinker non-intellectuals think of as cool. She's the kind of novelist who appeals to adolescent males of various ages who also flock to Nietzsche and his power of the will. At least, Nietzsche is taken seriously by other philosophers.
Flannery O'Connor, a gifted writer of fiction with a sharp eye for the fraudulent, once called Rand's fiction "as low as you can get" and recommended throwing it "in the nearest garbage pail." The critics and academics have not been kind to The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, which even The National Review called "sophomoric," silly, and shrill.
Rand uses fiction to promote her ideas of radical individualism, always popular in libertarian circles and obviously in favor in the anti-Communist heyday when Rand was a star to her followers, just as she is being revived today. Her strong support of laissez-faire capitalism has endeared her to Wall Street types (Alan Greenspan among many others) who know something about money but not much about good literature.
So it was no surprise recently to find that this heroine of the Tea Party was a major influence on Paul D. Ryan, the vice presidential GOP nominee, a man who has been called a "good Catholic." Old Flannery would have a chuckle at that: Rand, who hated religion and altruism of any kind, who promoted an ethical egoism, being hailed by the former altar boy from Wisconsin. When told that Rand was an atheist, Ryan quickly did his best political about-face and said he really preferred Thomas Aquinas (a safe choice, even if I doubt he ever dipped too deeply into the Summa Theologica).
It is understandable that an adolescent Paul Ryan would find in Ayn Rand a kindred spirit, but, with maturity and wider reading and a genuine education, including a fuller understanding of Christianity, he should be expected to put aside the passions of his boyhood. But for many people, the simplistic is always preferable to the complex, and the basic appeal of egoism and individualism, while contrary to the Gospels ("love thy neighbor"), is understandable among the impressionable.
Paul Ryan, as best I can tell, is an earnest, hard-working, decent man, no doubt a faithful church-goer and so a "good Catholic" in that sense. He is like far too many Americans, however, in not reading more widely or thinking more deeply, who knows that the ideology of self-interest fits well with the Republican mindset in the 21st century. And so he sees no reason to be embarrassed by his strong association with Ayn Rand.
Does he know that his one-time idol Ayn Rand once told Mike Wallace, "I am the most creative thinker alive"? She was delighted in the 1940s to be called the "most courageous man in America" since she detested weakness (associated with the feminine, at least in her time); she called the poor losers and hated social programs but was persuaded to sign up for Social Security and Medicare--like so many on the right today who attack what they called socialism in America while fiercely defending their own Social Security.
Rand had a cult-like following (depicted in the 1999 film The Passion of Ayn Rand with Helen Mirren) and still has her readers and followers who seem happy that their heroine has long been rejected by the academic and literary establishment (elites); they don't seem to mind the inconvenient fact that she hated Christianity and any belief that stood in the way of the self (greed, pleasure, money, power).
But then these are the type of people who would respond to Flannery O'Connor's dismissal--Rand's fiction "makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoyevsky"--with a loud WHO??