Inaccurate, misrepresented, and even willfully distorted reporting on Ayn Rand’s ideas has been common in the media since she first gained public prominence. That fact came up in a conversation she had with the editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, a kind of mini encyclopedia of her philosophy, Objectivism. The editor, Harry Binswanger, relates that Rand became increasingly enthusiastic about the Lexicon project, in part because it could serve as a corrective and eliminate any excuse for the continual misrepresentation of her philosophy. Rand quipped to him, “People will be able to look up BREAKFAST and see that I did not advocate eating babies for breakfast.”
But articles that misrepresent, or outright distort, Rand’s ideas continually find their way into print. Rarely are they worth a response. Two recent articles about Rand — one in Salon, the other in the New Republic — are different. It’s not because of what these articles say about her, but in how they say it.
Both articles raise worthwhile questions — at least, nominally. One asks about the appeal of Rand’s ideas among young people; the other is on the relation between Rand’s moral ideal of selfishness and President Trump. Both articles, moreover, cite sources, name facts, and even include some actual reporting — all in support of their highly unfavorable conclusions. Which is putting it mildly.
What’s remarkable about these essays is not that they’re sloppy, error-filled, slanted, or smears. They are. (And I’ll indicate a few, though by no means all, of their errors and misrepresentations.) Rather: what marks these essays out is that they exemplify a pernicious mindset, a mindset that’s wreaking havoc on our cultural-political life. It’s a phenomenon wider than how people engage with Ayn Rand — but when she’s the subject, that mindset is often starkly apparent.
These essays are apt case studies of a tribalist mindset.
Before we go on, let me acknowledge a concern that some of you might have. Yes, I work for the Ayn Rand Institute; I’m writing in a journal published by that Institute; and I’m analyzing articles that portray Rand unfavorably. But my main point is not to vindicate Rand, nor to change your mind about her, nor to convince you that these critics are wrong in their assessment (though I believe that’s the case).
What I want to show you — regardless of what you may already think of Rand, if you have a view at all — is that there’s a fundamental problem with these articles, a problem that negates their credibility. They’re not seeking to engage with facts, reach the truth, let alone convince any active-minded readers. Instead, they manipulate seemingly factual information for the sake of affirming and reinforcing a set of prejudices.
A serious youth problem?
“The Last of the Ayn Rand Acolytes,” by Alexander Sammon, appeared in the New Republic, and it seemingly asks a worthwhile question. The piece contends that “The romance of the [Objectivist] movement has lost a good deal of its cachet in an unequal, austerity-battered America — particularly when it comes to pulling in the young recruits who were once the backbone of the Rand insurgency. All the kids these days are becoming socialists and communists.” Citing a poll about young Americans who are fond of “socialism,” the writer then wonders if “Rand’s hyper-capitalist philosophy” is “running out of juice?”
There is a really interesting question here about Rand’s appeal, because it has far outlasted her lifetime and has gone global, reaching well beyond the United States. And it’s true that her writings resonate powerfully with young people. Why? What explains it? How much, if any, of it relates to her political views? Or her powerful dramatization in fiction of a new moral ideal? Does it vary by individual reader? These are among the questions my colleagues and I at ARI think a lot about. One observation I’ve drawn is that these questions are deceptively simple. Answering them takes a lot of data and a serious engagement with the variety of ways that Rand’s work resonates with particular individuals.
But the article is remarkable for its lack of curiosity about its nominal question. The reporter logged a few days at the conference and interviewed a number of people. That on-the-ground reporting, however, was just an opportunity to gather some anecdotes and quotations — to reinforce a preexisting view. Notice what the reporter takes as a sign that Objectivism has a “serious youth problem, and the conference’s organizers were quite aware of it.” ARI, which runs the conference, “offered a discount rate for those under 30, a talent show, and extracurricular activities like ‘late night jams.’”
What are these evidence of? Take the talent show. It might be probative, if it had been uniquely geared to young people. (No reason is given in the article to believe that.) Or, if it had been added to the program in a panicked reaction to some plummeting interest. (No again). The late-night jam session is an “extracurricular” event, meaning that attendees, not ARI, spontaneously organized it. That fact doesn’t support the point the reporter is trying to establish — and arguably, it might be counterevidence.
Finally, what conclusion can be drawn from the fact that people under 30 can register at a discount? One conclusion is that ARI is interested in attracting young people and making it easier, more affordable, for them to attend. But is that unique to the Objectivist movement? No. Student and youth discounts are everywhere (think: movie theaters, transportation). Moreover, it would be exceedingly odd for an intellectual or political movement to be uninterested in connecting with young people.
That’s why, for example, you find the same kind of discount offered by Netroots Nation, which, for “more than a decade,” has “hosted the largest annual conference for progressives, drawing nearly 3,000 attendees from around the country and beyond.” In 2019, if you were 18 or younger, you would have paid only $110 (discounted from the full rate of $375) to attend the conference. And that’s quite apart from the “hundreds” of scholarships, covering full or partial costs, that Netroots offered. Is that proof, then, that the progressive movement in the U.S. has a “serious youth problem”?
There’s no way to reach a reasonable conclusion — neither about ARI’s conference, nor the Netroots event — when this is what is offered as evidence.
What, then, is the actual purpose of the New Republic’s article? Some of the shoddy reporting provides a lead, because it’s not mere sloppiness. It’s purposeful. Let’s unpack just one paragraph, for which the relevant facts are publicly verifiable.
Sammon quotes ARI’s chairman, Yaron Brook, saying that the Institute’s first program focused on young people, and then writes:
True to that aim, ARI began donating 400,000 copies of Rand’s novels to advanced-placement high school programs each year. It also awarded big cash prizes for Rand-themed essay contests (in 2018 alone, ardent young Objectivists raked in a cool $130,000 for such broadsides).
In just these 44 words, there are four factual errors, which slant toward a purpose.
(1) The article implies that ARI’s first program was giving away copies of Rand’s novels. In fact, the Institute’s first major project, in 1985, was an essay contest on Rand’s novels. It was in 2002 — fully seventeen years after ARI was founded — that we piloted an initiative to supply teachers with free classroom sets of Rand’s novels. That project was born in response to requests from teachers themselves. So far, we’ve given away more than four million books. Teachers continue to ask for the books, and then tell us about how intellectually energized their students are after reading Rand’s novels.
(3) Students who take part in our essay contests may agree or disagree with Rand’s view. There’s never been a requirement that they be “ardent young Objectivists” (meaning that they embrace Rand’s philosophy), either to take part or to win a prize. Which bring us to the next tendentious error.
(4) To imply that ARI awards prizes for Rand-themed “broadsides” is factually wrong. The questions we set for the essay contests are designed to prompt students to engage deeply with Rand’s novels, the plot, the motivations of characters, the book’s philosophic theme. What’s more, our judging criteria (published online) state that: “Essays will be judged on whether the student is able to argue for and justify his or her view — not on whether the Institute agrees with the view the student expresses.” Take a look at the questions for 2020, and some of the winning essays, to form your own view.
The thread running through these errors, and the article as a whole, is to push a distorted picture of Rand (and by extension, the Objectivist movement). There are three elements in that picture — none of them true to the facts.
First, it’s a trivialization of Rand’s philosophy, so that her appeal is taken to be exclusively about her advocacy of capitalism and (in Sammon’s phrase) “personal pocket-stuffing.” That’s the subtext behind the errors I’ve just noted, and many others. It’s also evident in Sammon’s downplaying of the salient fact that the theme of our 2019 Objectivist conference was Rand’s theory of art.
Second, the movement around Rand’s ideas is portrayed as something of a quasi-religious, or cult-like, phenomenon of unthinking followers. Third, and this goes to a major purpose of the article, Rand is assumed to be the motive force behind the conservative or right-wing tribe.
Smearing to affirm prejudices
This false picture comes out in numerous small touches throughout, but it’s the opening of the article that’s particularly revealing. Sammon claims that the original Ayn Rand clubs in the 1960s were governed by “eight rules,” only two of which could be mentioned publicly: that Rand was the greatest human being ever, and Atlas Shrugged, the greatest human achievement ever. Then Sammon observes that at last summer’s Objectivist conference, “everyone seemed to be in compliance.” For evidence of that, he quotes a 26-year-old attendee. Sammon reports that she was once an avowed environmentalist, but after reading Atlas Shrugged, she has come to believe that the solution is to encourage development.
Put aside those eight rules for the moment (we’ll come back to them), and consider his example of the former environmentalist. Let’s assume that she’s quoted accurately in the article. Whatever you think of environmental issues, or of Ayn Rand, this is nothing like a coherent argument. I’ve met fans of Atlas Shrugged who believe environmental issues call for regulatory controls on development. You can hate Atlas Shrugged, or simply disagree with it, and still think that environmental problems call for more, not less, development and innovation. That’s basically the view Steven Pinker expresses in his book Enlightenment Now, and, whether he’s read Rand’s novels or not, his views on key philosophic, moral and political issues are fundamentally at odds with Objectivism. We could keep going on and on with counterexamples.
Sammon’s claim cannot convince any active-minded reader. The non sequitur is pretty flagrant. What, then, is the article’s opening trying to do? If you already hold a certain prejudice about Rand and about fans of her work, the article will trigger an emotional reaction. It will affirm and reinforce your prejudice. Put into words (politely), it’s something like: “I always knew it — they’re a bunch of unthinking worshipers of the dollar and rapacious industry.”
Since that personal and professional rupture between them, Branden had an ongoing, publicly stated animus toward Rand and her ideas, and a vested interest in smearing her and vindicating himself. There’s a further problem, because his own memoir shows him to be a prolific liar, thus casting wholesale doubt over the book’s credibility. But if you did take it as credible, there’s the fact that Sammon even manages to misreport that (dubious) source, regarding those “rules” in the source article. Branden’s quoted words are “implicit premises” which his organization, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, “transmitted to our students.” Sammon takes this weird allegation from the grudge-bearing Branden and slants it further.
But there’s an even more significant problem here. Journalists are supposed to be not only critical of what they see, hear, and read, but also concerned with primary sources and first-hand evidence. A good place to look, then, is Rand herself, her published writing, her media appearances, her speeches. Though she was proud of Atlas Shrugged and possessed self-esteem, she would have strenuously repudiated those “eight rules” — precisely because of their injunction to submit to authority. The through line of her writing and speaking is the supreme importance of thinking independently, putting nothing — no authority — above the judgment of your individual mind. To disregard this counterevidence, and pretend it doesn’t exist, is malpractice.
Again: my point here is not to change your mind about Rand or her ideas, but to show that Sammon’s article is uninterested in convincing through facts and logic. It’s advancing a particular slant, for the purpose of affirming certain prejudices.
A tribal enmity
Which bring us to the third element of the distorted picture of Rand and the movement around her ideas: the notion that Rand is the behind-the-scenes power of our culture’s other major tribe, the conservative/right-leaning movement. This trope has been knocking around for years and surfaces in various articles. For those in the grips of this quasi-conspiracist trope, imagine how soothing it would be to hear that the Rand phenomenon is waning.
Has Rand influenced activists, intellectuals, politicians and others who define themselves as libertarian or Republican or conservative? Of course. But that influence is far from straightforward or uniform. For a start, Rand excoriated the conservative and libertarian movements of her own time; she saw those movements, in different ways, as intellectually bankrupt and subversive of freedom. Nor does Rand belong in the vague categories “right wing” or “conservative,” given her views. For instance, Objectivism rejects all forms of the supernatural, emphatically including religion; or consider her principled view on a woman’s moral right to abortion.
One more counterpoint to the trope is that Rand’s novels have been cited by Hollywood figures who view themselves as sympathetic, if not wholly supportive, of progressive causes. For instance, Angelina Jolie, Mayim Bialik, Emma Watson, among others, have said that Rand’s fiction had a strong impact on them. The point, then, is that Rand’s influence is multifaceted, it goes well beyond political issues, and it is unbounded by the conventional left-right framing.
Without appreciating these facts, it’s impossible to form a view of Rand’s cultural influence. To imagine that her philosophy underpins the mainline conservative movement is risible. Coming from opponents of her views, that notion is a prejudice.
Sammon seems dimly aware that the Rand-powers-the-right trope is problematic. But he is uncurious about why that is so. Instead, he mentions several politicians who claim to like Rand, but whose policies deviate from her ideal of laissez-faire capitalism. This is a fascinating phenomenon, and it should trigger dozens of questions for a journalist trying to understand Rand’s impact and appeal.
For example, if a professed admirer of Rand’s ideas enters politics but enacts policies at odds with Objectivism, does that mean he’s betraying those ideas? Or, could it be evidence that his understanding of them was shallow or incomplete or non-existent? or that what resonated was not at all her political ideas, but perhaps the moral confidence of her heroes? or her depiction of productive achievement as heroic? More broadly, what does it look like for a radical, convention-challenging philosophy to influence an individual? Is it an overnight, all-or-nothing effect — or is it subject to gradations, across what kind of time frame?
None of these threads (or many others I could name) is pursued in Sammon’s article. There’s no attempt to grapple with the actual nature and scale of Rand’s cultural impact. For Sammon, intent on portraying Rand and Objectivism in quasi-religious terms, there are just “pilgrims” and “Quislings.” By the close of Sammon’s article, there’s no answer to the question that supposedly motivated it: Is Rand’s appeal with the young waning? At most, that question serves as a hook to make the article seem topical. Rather than address that issue, the writer fashioned a narrative that will be emotionally soothing to the tribalist progressive reader — and unconvincing to a critical reader. Its message: Stop worrying, the Rand phenomenon — and the hated “conservative” tribe it nourishes — is done for.
End of Part 1. Part 2 is here.