Atlas shrined: The holy doctrine of Ayn Rand

| Staff Columnist

She’s back! There’s a new old kid on the block of conservative ideologies, and the far right has chosen none other than Ayn Rand—yes, she of the oft-mispronounced name and the 1,000-page doorstop novels that rhapsodize megalomania and laissez-faire capitalism like it’s going out of style—except that it hasn’t. The neocons have latched onto Rand, and it looks like she’s here to stay. And while conservatives flock to her extreme economics and egotism, it’s astounding that this has become the philosophy du jour of a modern political movement.

In her book, “Goddess of the Market,” University of Virginia professor and Ayn Rand scholar extraordinaire Jennifer Burns writes, “Though Americans turned to their government for aid, succor and redress of grievances even more frequently during the twentieth century, they did so with doubts, fears, and misgivings, all of which Rand cast into stark relief in her fiction.” Sound familiar? It shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a Rand resurgence on the rise (she currently holds as much shelf space as Jane Austen in the Brentwood Borders), especially as interest in her novels is cyclical. As more and more conservative political pundits wave their copies of Anthem, Rand’s sales have soared. “Atlas Shrugged” has scored a No. 2 ranking on Amazon’s list of classic books (wedged in between “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye”).

But while her commercial prowess may echo her philosophy loud and clear, the point is a little more muddled for those who often ask, “Who is John Galt?” Upon closer inspection, Ayn Rand seems like an unusual choice for today’s conservatives. An ardent atheist, she renounced religion as a preteen, and her characters are more likely to worship the clanging hymns of a finely oiled steel factory than any deity. Rand’s heroines also reflect her particular brand of feminism—they’re cold, calculating and hyper-sexualized. You certainly won’t find Dagny Taggart as some desperate housewife slaving over the proverbial stove and agonizing over the tossup between family values and climbing the career ladder.

Almost universally renowned for a writing style that seems to mix Harlequin romance with highbrow philosophy, Rand has never been considered a particularly suitable subject for serious academic examination. As her works begin to gain momentum (and skyrocket through sales charts), however, more attention is being paid to the radical Ms. Rand. The last time an Ayn Rand book was required reading for a Wash. U. class was in 2006 (“The Fountainhead,” for a freshman seminar).

According to a past Student Life article, professor and political science department chair Andrew Rehfeld said in 2008 that there wasn’t much chance of an increase in such conservatively-based courses on campus. But courses in objectivist literature are beginning to pop up all over the country, even in more traditionally liberal settings. Brown University offers a political theory project featuring Rand, and state institutions such as University of Texas at Austin have included a more conservative curriculum that may include Rand’s writing.

Within this national trend, Rand still continues to find fans in those college students who used to be the livelihood of her novels—and who read them almost as rite of passage, akin to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Noam Chomsky’s “Chomsky Reader.”

What has always made Rand so powerful and appealing for college students is her unabashed love of the alternative intellectual. She considered herself not just a member of the intelligentsia, but also a leader among them. And so, as Glenn Beck flaps a dog-eared tome of “Atlas Shrugged” on national television, we come to see how Rand has solved the problem bemoaned by conservatives as the downfall of contemporary politics. As they point to blue-blood pedigrees and Ivy League diplomas as the roots of leftist evil, they grasp in their hands the bridge between the selected few and the huddled masses. Ayn Rand offers more than big business and erstwhile egos—it’s philosophy for the populace, served hot on a sterling steel platter. And distasteful or not, maybe that’s something we should all learn to swallow in this age of ignorance.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.