HBL   The Harry Binswanger List

Ayn Rand Nation

a book by Gary Weiss

Reviewed by Sara Rolph

The author of this book gets so many things wrong about Ayn Rand that one wonders if perhaps that was his intention.

Ayn Rand "lived for politics," he says, an assertion for which he cites no source or evidence. It's entirely misleading; Rand had little interest in politics. As a philosopher and a novelist, she lived for ideas.

Weiss makes this statement as part of a rambling passage that seems aimed at painting Rand as an inauthentic Jew. Why he harps on her Jewish background is entirely unclear; Rand was a firm atheist. But Weiss seems to think it's important--and he wants us to know that she wasn't the proper sort of Jew, the downtrodden type that he claims to respect.

It's an odd line of reasoning, more revealing about Weiss than about Rand. He says of Rand, who came to America from Russia in 1926, "Her family was Jewish but spoke Russian and had little in common with the Yiddish-speaking, dirt-poor Jews who migrated to America in vast numbers. ... They were superstitious and religious. They endured cattle-like processing at Ellis Island and then crammed into tenements to work in sweat-shops and tinderbox factories..." Weiss uses this irrelevant condensed history to create a contrast with Rand, who he paints as an elitist, in keeping with his misunderstanding of her work. "Rand never worked in a sweatshop or factory, and was not endowed with empathy, so she saw factory owners and other capitalists not as ruthless exploiters, as they were viewed by their employees, but as heroes, the builders and brains of society."

Weiss is himself such a firm anti-capitalist that he cannot imagine how someone could believe in capitalism on principle. Apparently his own views are formed only by the circumstances in which he finds himself and his emotional reactions to them, so he assumes that this is the case for others.

And he has some rather primitive emotional reactions.

Riffing on Jews and capitalism, Weiss tells us "The only capitalists I ever saw were overworked storekeepers, snarling gypsy-cab drivers, and smack dealers on 135th Street. She [Rand] saw a free, unregulated market as the defining institution of a free society. To me, a free, unregulated market was Benny the Goniff selling fruit from a stall in front of a butcher shop on Kingsbridge Road, screaming "Whoaaaa! We got melons here!" in a high-pitched Yiddish accent, sneaking rotten fruit into the bag and counting out ten when a dozen were ordered."

Yes, that really is a direct quote from the book (page 14). It gets worse. Weiss continues: "Benny's spirit drifted downtown to Wall Street. In place of Benny the Goniff as my archetypical capitalist was a new cast of characters. ... Instead of red-faced Benny in his stained undershirt there was the esteemed electronic-trading advocate Bernie Madoff in his monogrammed underwear. Both blended together in my perceptions, small-time and big wheel."

That passage sheds some light on what is wrong with Weiss, but it doesn't have a thing to do with Ayn Rand.

Weiss doesn't seem to have any idea why she held the views she did. He says "Rand used the government "gun" as a metaphor for everything the state might do that she didn't like." Actually, she used the gun as a metaphor for the use of force. The government has a monopoly on the use of force, which is the fundamental reason it's a bad idea to give too much power to the government. If Weiss can't puzzle this out, he really has no business writing a book about the influence of Ayn Rand.

Since he doesn't understand her ideas and doesn't seem able or willing to think in principle, he brings his own interpretation to her work and then proceeds to chop down the strawman he has created.

Although Rand wrote many essays explaining her philosophy--its emphasis on rational self-interest is formally grounded in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics--Weiss ignores these. Instead he provides an analysis based on his own misunderstanding of her novels. He completely misrepresents her views, saying "What drove Ayn Rand into a fury was a nondescript, everyday human quality, an expression of generosity and selflessness."

In fact, Rand had no problem with generosity. What she despised was the morality of self-sacrifice. In her novels, she points out that good intentions are not enough; do-gooders often fool themselves into believing they have all the answers when what they really want is control. State control is often presented as being "for your own good," and this is the evil Ayn Rand was warning against. (And this is why her work has remained popular, and why it is so much in the public eye right now.)

Weiss can't get beyond a kindergarten view of the world. He says "In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand teaches every alienated teenager, `It's okay to be a loner. You don't need friends. You don't have to share. It's your toy. You earned it. Keep it. Your little sister can get her own toy.'"

The Fountainhead is a novel about adults. In the adult world, it is in fact appropriate to keep what one earns. There is no giant toy basket from which jobs, food, and shelter can be dispensed. Indeed, that is, in a sense, the most basic point of Rand's work. And it seems to be the most basic thing that leftists don't understand. It's a sad fact that there are a lot of people like Weiss who apparently believe that the only thing standing between us and a world without hunger and violence is the ability to share our toys.

Weiss's goal in writing this book seems to be to discredit Rand and by extension to discredit the Tea Party. The book is a series of profiles of people who admire Ayn Rand, each of whom Weiss pigeonholes and ridicules using his wildly inaccurate assessment of Rand's work and his deeply leftist view of the world.

But neither Ayn Rand nor the Tea Party is as Weiss sees them. The Tea Party principles are small government, fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law, and individual liberty. Rand's philosophy supports these principles, so it is not surprising that there would be a connection. Weiss either doesn't know these things, or doesn't care to admit them.

Weiss says that Rand "advanced a system of values that turned the moral values of Western civilization upside-down. ... She believed in individualism and opposed the institutions of society that benefited groups of people, which she condemned as the evil of "collectivism"."

It is sobering that Weiss seems not to understand that individualism is one of the important moral values of Western civilization.

And it is sad that Weiss does not understand what Rand meant by collectivism. His stilted description of what he imagines she opposed makes it clear that he is clueless ("institutions of society that benefit groups of people" - does he think she was an anarchist?).

Weiss is defensive because he himself firmly believes in government control. He dismisses the entire concept of laissez-faire capitalism by dishonestly calling it "no-government capitalism." Weiss thinks that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by a "failure of deregulation and untrammeled capitalism," a laughable view. He ridicules Paul Ryan for saying that President Obama's policies could have come right out of an Ayn Rand novel; yet that assertion is self-evidently true.

Weiss ends his book by saying "We need to choose--our heritage or Ayn Rand." He holds quite an odd view of our heritage. With his childlike view of reality, he argues: "The words "capitalism," "markets," and "free enterprise" appear in none of the founding documents of America."

Unable to think in principle, unfamiliar, it seems, with the very concept of principle, it has escaped Weiss's notice that there is a clear connection between free enterprise and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Weiss lives in the greatest country in the world, a country that was founded on the principle of freedom, and he doesn't even know it.