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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,206

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This is the grave of Ayn Rand.

Unfortunately born in 1905 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum grew up in a successful Jewish family. She lived an elite life until she was 12. The Bolshevik Revolution took her father’s lucrative pharmacy business and the family were supporters of the Whites anyway. They fled to Crimea and lived there until the end of the civil war in 1921. At that point, they moved back to St. Petersburg, but without any of the resources they had come to rely upon. But young Alisa was able to get into Petrograd State University, now admitting women for the first time since women had a role to play in the Revolution too. She was purged for awhile for her class background, but eventually was allowed to graduate. She worked for awhile in the film writing industry, which is where she took the name Ayn Rand, which also hid her Jewish background, more or less. Her first publication was about Pola Negri. If only she had stuck to film criticism, the world would be a much less terrible place today.

Rand got out of the Soviet Union in 1925, when she was able to procure a visa to visit family members in Chicago. She had no intention of returning. She ended up in Hollywood, soon became friends with Cecil B. DeMille, and got work from him as a screenwriter. She also married the actor Frank O’Connor at this time and they would remained married the rest of their lives, though far from in a monogamous relationship.

I’m not entirely sure where and exactly how Rand started developing her ideology of extreme individualism. But she started The Fountainhead in 1935, so it was well-developed by that time. Now, someone who lost her family fortune in the Bolshevik Revolution, OK, I get not being a big fan of the state. But it’s worth taking a minute here and thinking about why her terrible, awful, no good fiction was so popular. It most certainly wasn’t because it was good. She was a terrible writer, with prose as turgid as the Mississippi River in flood stage. But the rise of the corporation and the rise of the centralized state really did cause a mental crisis in a lot of Americans. The idea of a state that could tell you what to do–even if it was a collectively decided thing that meant better welfare from all, such as Social Security, was a shock to the system of Americans who wanted to believe that a masculine individualism was the core ideology of the nation and the world. Rand tapped right into these fears. For a lot of these people, differences between Soviet communism, fascism, and the New Deal were just matters of degree, even outside of the fact that the particular ways fascism operated appealed to some of them who found the social welfare side of this especially awful.

It took her awhile to fully explore all of this. In 1937, she put aside The Fountainhead to write Anthem, which was about a future world where the word “I” has been replaced with “we,” clearly the worst thing in the world. The Fountainhead finally got published in 1943, after she wrote it while taking benzos to keep her awake for days. No one wanted it but finally she got a publisher and then it went big time, again because of these fears of centralization. She stayed on the benzos and other such drugs for the next 30 years, leading to increasingly erratic personal behavior.

By 1947, Rand, still working in Hollywood, was a happy witness for HUAC, loving to name the names. She thought The Best Years of Our Lives was communist propaganda, for instance. After all, it suggested that business might not be the greatest thing in the world. She was more than happy to use a big powerful government to crush people she didn’t like. This is always the hypocrisy of Rand and her followers–they are totally fine with the government when it does what they want it to. It’s when it does something to help other people that it’s outrageous. But to hurt other people, especially the hippies and the commies? That’s awesome. And let’s define “commie” really really really broadly to include everyone involved in The Best Years of Our Lives.

In 1951, Rand moved to New York where she gathered young acolytes around her and started what was basically a sex cult with them. One of them was Alan Greenspan. It’s unclear whether Rand and Greenspan actually fucked, but she definitely bossed him around in his sex life. In this, it’s certainly no different than any other number of cults in American history, from the Second Great Awakening to NXIVM. What makes this sex cult different is that its other cultish beliefs—its economic system—only managed to do tremendous damage around the world. It so appealed to the brain of people who think like they did when they were 6 years old—MINE MINE MINE!!!—that it soon reached the highest echelons of American and thus global financial power. And no member of Rand’s cult would become more powerful in these circles than Alan Greenspan. It was Rand who set Greenspan up with his second wife in the early 50s, though the marriage only lasted a year.

Another of Rand’s young followers was Nathaniel Branden and they definitely started having sex, with all spouses knowing about it. At this point, she published an even worse book–Atlas Shrugged. That got published in 1957 and this was the peak of her ideology, her purest articulation–if that’s what you want to call such a badly written tract–of Objectivism. This is of course his ridiculous pro-selfishness ideology that places the happiness of the single individual at the peak of the human experience, with everything else hurting that primary goal. Hurt others on the way? Great, way to live up to the peak of human experience!

Now, Rand was a little smarter than most of her followers and she tried to follow her ideas to some logical conclusions. Almost every supposed follower of Rand in public office today, including her hideously awful namesake Rand Paul, oppose abortion rights but Rand was a big supporter of them. She thought the Vietnam War was evil and said so. She also was a racist and colonialist who supported Israel’s most aggressive actions in the Middle East and all European domination over tribes and peoples around the world that she thought of as inferior to whites. In fact, the idea entire of Objectivism is just another extension of white supremacy since you can hurt others to promote your own happiness and so if you have the guns and the money to kill some indigenous people and carve out your own paradise of colonialism, go for it. If you could use the state to assist you in this–all the better! She was also a sexual hypocrite, finally turning on Branden for sleeping with someone else–after all, sexual freedom was only good for you, not the other.

In 1976, Rand was aging quickly and in bad health. So she enrolled for Social Security and Medicare. Of course she did. She was a giant hypocrite who had no real principles except whatever worked for her on a given day. A heavy smoker, she finally died in 1982. She was 77 years old.

Rand was initially going to be post #666 in this series. But I went with the banality of evil of James Blaine instead. Then I just held on to this grave for the next 2+ years. But hey, today’s the day.

I think the appeal of Rand today is different than it was among her earliest followers, at least to some extent. The midcentury world of the corporate-state alliance taking over the individual is a long ago worry that doesn’t really animate the far right today in the same way. There is plenty of anti-statism, but it’s more about the state doing things like helping Black people and legalizing gay sex. Rand’s ideas can easily be morphed into supporting these sorts of people, but that’s not all of it either. If anything, individualism is a more powerful force today than it was in her lifetime. Even leftists see themselves as personal brands with a personal brand of politics. The state has been so damaged that it is only seen as getting in the way of progress, not “oppressing” us in the way of the 30s and 40s. So Rand’s appeal comes from, usually, very stupid people who are greedy and like the idea that whatever good they do is because they are so tough and manly and brave and whatever they fail at doing is the fault of other people. That basic thought has become a given ideology to many many people around the world, especially in the United States, and Rand serves to reinforce it. The stupider you are, the more likely this is to appeal to you. In my experience, it very much appeals to men more than women, including young men of color who have college degrees and see themselves as different than the other people in their communities. I think this also explains the cryptocurrency nonsense and why it is communities of color that are the ones investing heavily in this garbage. Since the state is worthless, why can’t I create my own money?

Ayn Rand is buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other horrifyingly awful right-wing writers who have made the nation and world worse by their existence, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tim Lahaye is in San Diego and Brent Bozell is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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