Ayn Rand and Political Conservatives: ‘The Proud in the Imagination of Their Hearts’

New York City: Midtown at dusk Sunday 9/13/09

Ah!  The Summer of ‘64.  While my peers rushed for Beatles and Beach Boys tickets and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, I read Ayn Rand.

Between high school and college, I worked at WOMP in Bellaire, Ohio, a top-40 radio station playing the same 25 or so songs over and over and over again….

The Program Director and the News Director were very unhappy about the Civil Rights Act for reasons that had little to do with race.  To understand why, they insisted I study The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  Each day, I got grilled on my progress.  I was a lot more interested in talking about Billboard and Variety.

I can’t say the experience cured me of political conservatism.  My family were Southern Democrats, that vanished breed who’d supported Johnson against Kennedy in the 1960 primaries.  That mind set I did not shuck entirely until 1970 when I arrived at Ohio State 35 days after the killings at Kent State.

Reading the two Ayn Rand novels six summers earlier had left doubts in my mind.  Who could live with himself without acknowledging his responsibility for the well being of others?  Who could claim to be ‘self made’ when every opportunity he’d grasped had come through someone’s generosity or teaching?

Attractive as I found William F. Buckley, Jr. and his National Review, the discomfort Rand had inspired twinged when I read them.  The Virtue of Selfishness, which I found the winter before Nixon’s Cambodia Invasion, put an end to any intellectual attraction the right may have had for me.

So, I can say Ayn Rand innoculated me against what calls itself conservatism in politics.

All this came to mind this morning when great friend, Gary Moore, sent me a link to ‘The Trouble with Ayn Rand:  Civilization teeters on the brink: they’ve made a movie of Atlas Shrugged’, by David Bentley Hart in the May issue of First Things.

Hart is a superb essayist:  well-read, wise and very witty.  Here’s a sample:

 …Ayn Rand always provokes a rather extravagant reaction from me, and probably for purely ideological reasons. For instance, I like the Sermon on the Mount.  She regarded its prescriptions as among the vilest ever uttered. I suspect that charity really is the only way to avoid wasting one’s life in a desert of sterile egoism. She regarded Christian morality as a poison that had polluted the will of Western man with its ethos of parasitism and orgiastic self-oblation. And, simply said, I cannot find much common ground with someone who believed that the principal source of human woe over the last twenty centuries has been a tragic shortage of selfishness.  [Link added]

 Thus Hart summarizes the case against Rand and her disciples.  His comments on the movie, The Fountainhead, I’ve put amongst my collection of ‘I wish I’d written that’.

Gary Moore reminds Randians who claim also to be Christians of a verse from the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55), the song of Mary in praise of God:  ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ (1:53)

But I prefer a verse two earlier in the same canticle: ‘He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.’  (1:51)

Few phrases more tellingly capture the human condition, our original sin, than ‘the proud in the imagination of their hearts’.  And none captures so well the fallacy – the emptiness, the ‘horror’ of Heart of Darkness – at the center of today’s political conservatism.



H/T, once again, to Gary Moore who has written five books on the morality of political economy, the last being Faithful Finances 101 from the John Templeton Foundation Press. You can read more at www.financialseminary.org.