NAME YOUR FAVORITE AYN RAND FLAW
by Wendy McElroy
My favorite Rand flaw is (or was) her propensity to put intellectual miscreants on trial. Associates who held incorrect views of sex, Aristotle or her novels could find themselves on a ‘hot seat’ in Rand’s apartment, being cross-examined by Nathaniel Branden while those Objectivists who were sinless sat back like a jury, observing. Some defendants, like Murray Rothbard, were prosecuted in absentia because they wouldn’t show up; his crime was being married to a Christian.
How did everyone keep a straight face?
Ayn Rand has been unusually prominent in the headlines of late. So much of the dystopian politics and economics depicted in Atlas Shrugged have come to pass that her words seem eerily prescient. In Rand, some see society’s path to redemption; some see a direct path to social hell. Indeed, Rand is a litmus test in a cultural divide that is erupting into a full-blown conflict. Rightwing Paul Ryan — the Budget Committee Chairman in the House of Representatives and a prominent Republican – has stated, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” Meanwhile, investigative reporter Gary Weiss captured the left’s opinion of Rand in an Alternet article entitled, “The Horrors of an Ayn Rand World: Why We Must Fight for America’s Soul.” The article proclaimed, “An Objectivist America would be a dark age of unhindered free enterprise, far more primitive and Darwinian than anything seen before.”
Commentators who come to bury Rand, not praise her, are fond of dwelling on her negative personality traits. For example, she was rabidly intolerant of criticism or even of overly candid disagreement. Rand rarely credited sources of information or ideas even though some associates, like her mentor Isabel Paterson, contributed generously to Rand’s intellectual development. Rand was both egotistical and emotionally fragile. With sexual views that were oddly wanton and puritanical at the same time, she openly carried on an adulterous affair with a man decades younger.
Recently, while reading a contemptuous dissection of Rand’s flaws, I came to a sudden realization. I wouldn’t have her any other way. In my early twenties, and still fresh with adrenaline from reading her while a teens, I was disillusioned by stories of Rand in which she seemed petty or cruel. Many of the stories came from some former admirer or ex-member of her ‘inner circle’ – the ones who acted as prosecutors or jurors when court was in session. Gradually, I came to question key aspects of the accounts. I did not and do not doubt that such trials or other pettiness occurred, nor do I dismiss the flaws that they spotlight. But I deeply doubt the slant of the facts. Why? Because the tellers of tales never seemed to take responsibility for their own roles in any unpleasantness. If Rand was wrong to hold trials, then they were equally wrong to participate…and to do so repeatedly. It is as though the smearing of Rand exonerated them or, at least, it shifted people’s attention.
From that first crack of doubt, I arrived at long last to my final and current conclusion: I like many of her flaws. I like my Ayn Rand to be more imposing that life, colorful, brash, argumentative, clutching a cigarette-holder, wearing a cape, pronouncing judgments and dripping with eccentricity. I would not be as drawn to an entirely sane Van Gogh; I revel in the cruelty of Dorothy Parker’s wit; W.C. Fields’ alcoholism is part of his charm; and, a drug-free Edgar Allen Poe may never have written The Raven.
Why should anyone feel uncomfortable about Rand’s eccentricities and foibles? Why should her admirers apologize for them? Afterall, who did she harm? Certainly not the people who voluntarily played judge and jury nor those who willingly assumed the ‘hot seat’, unlike Rothbard. There is such a concept as ‘free will’, after all. Even the snickered at affair with Nathaniel Branden did not inflict harm in the regular way. Rand was entirely honest with her husband and with Branden’s wife. Branden himself was the one who lied. Besides which, would people be snickering through the decades if it had been an older man with a younger woman?
People seem to expect a creative genius to be pedestrian in all other areas of life, especially their personal conduct. Genius is an extreme aberration that makes its possessor process the world in a markedly different manner than other people. It is not a minor difference, like color blindness, but a fundamental one in which all the information of life is filtered through aberrant brilliance. How else can it flash out with the brightness of pure light into art and literature, science and music?
Yes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like Ayn Rand’s flaws. The next time some tries to discredit her ideas by referring to her personality, I intend to ask whether the person whether they would reattach Van Gogh’s ear or send Poe through rehab.
And, then, I will ask another question. After listening to Rand being excoriated with contempt and mirthfully smeared, I will ask, “What words do you reserve in your vocabulary for someone who actually harms another human being?” If Rand is a secular Satan or the architect of social hell, then what words do you use to describe a murderer, a rapist or even someone who mugs a little old lady? By relentlessly damning Rand for the sin of disagreeing with their worldview, the left are displaying one of the characteristic for which they most revile Rand: intolerance.