Galt Almighty

Bad news: Ayn Rand’s Alas Shrugged— sales of which are booming — is going to become a movie, starring Angelina Jolie, who will channel her father’s conservative politics and dip as deeply as she can into the shallows of her own politics of narcissism to portray the doorstopper’s protagonist Dagny Taggert, witness to the ubermensch John Galt. The conservative National Review has convened a symposium to discuss what might be considered in reactionary circles “The Rand Problem.” On the one hand, she portrayed capitalism as literally more thrilling than orgasms; on the other, she displaced the cross with the dollar sign.

“Is Rand freshly relevant in the Age of Obama?” National Review asks. That all depends on what you define as the present danger. Is it socialism, or godlessness? I know, I know, they go together, along with organic vegetables. But it seems conservatives must demand of themselves, On which front should we now fight?

“Many read and embrace her philosophy of ‘objective’ egoism,” writes National Review contributor Jonathan Bean. “Alas, Rand’s ‘truth’ leaves no room for God.” Egoism, good; godlessness, worse. But perhaps the two can be reconciled. “A friend who lost everything in the financial crisis took it as an opportunity to come to both Christ and Ayn Rand,” writes NR contributor Andrew Leigh, a screenwriter.

Knowing me as a fan of both, he asked how I reconciled them, considering that Rand was an atheist. I think it’s rather simple: Rand was the first to make me realize that government is force. Most Christians would never dream of pointing a gun at someone and forcing him to donate to a particular charity. So why is it acceptable when the government does it?

Good point! That’s why it’s best to shoot first when you see a cop in your neighborhood — he’s probably going to beat you to a pulp before he forces you to join the March of Dimes.

But it really is a toss-up for the NR crowd, because while on the one hand Rand was a champion of free-market fundamentalism, on the other she was, well, a Jew. “The Ragnarok-ish end of Atlas Shrugged reveals much,” offers Bradley J. Birzer, a historian at ultra-right Hillsdale College who insists on calling Rand by her given name, Rosenbaum.

“The world, through mediocrity, has burned itself out. Those who embrace hierarchy and will, the new gods, return after having hidden in a secret redoubt in the Rockies. As they descend from their Valhalla, presumably to conquer, the new chief god blesses the world with the ‘sign of the dollar.'”

It’s not often that one gets to stick to the Jews and the Vikings at the same time.

Sad to say, I agree with Birzer, even though I’m Jewish and a big fan of Thor. As far as I’m concerned, Ayn Rand’s novels are abominations; may Odin smite Angelina Jolie down. For a saner perspective, though, I’d turn to Randian Chris Matthew Sciabarra, whom I wrote about for The Chronicle of Higher Education ten years ago, when Rand studies were just beginning to boom in the academy, prelude, evidently, to the deluge.

Sipping a drink atop this city’s tallest skyscraper, decked out in a gray, pinstriped, double-breasted suit, his brown eyes unblinking as he declares his commitment to “total freedom,” Chris Matthew Sciabarra knows that he might easily be mistaken for a “Randroid.”

“Randroids,” he explains, are true believers. They believe in the truth according to Ayn Rand, and only Ayn Rand.

Mr. Sciabarra adores the writer best-known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, in which she insisted that selfishness is a moral path, and that only capitalism can set the world free. But although he’s a card-carrying member of the Ayn Rand Society, he views her with a degree of skepticism.

He is Rand’s most vocal champion in academe, a status that demands he help to open the long-closed circle of Randianism to new perspectives. Along with a small but growing movement of philosophers, political theorists, and literary critics, he thinks that Rand, who died in 1982, will soon take her rightful place in the hearts and minds of scholars.

As co-editor, with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, of the recent Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (Penn State University Press) and author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995), Mr. Sciabarra, a visiting scholar at New York University, is riding the crest of a Randian wave.

Like born-again Christians recalling the moment of their salvation, many Randians remember their own conversions — to laissez-faire capitalism, selfishness, atheism, and the objective truth — with a mixture of reverence and amusement at their former selves.

Mr. Sciabarra credits his own first encounter as the source of his ability to distinguish between himself and the uber-men of Rand’s novels. As a high-school senior daunted by the heft of The Fountainhead, he was more intrigued by Rand’s slim Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. “Unlike virtually everyone who has come to Rand,” he says, “I devoured her entire nonfiction before reading any of her fiction. I think that saved me from becoming a true believer.”

Mr. Sciabarra pauses for reflection, stares into the dusk at the tiny flame of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor beneath the World Trade Center, and takes another drink. He is sipping seltzer, not a martini, and when he says he’s a “man of ideas,” it comes out Brooklyn-style: “idears.” That’s fine by him. “I never wanted to be Howard Roark,” he says.

You can continue reading at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).