History

Rand Redux

Reason does Ayn Rand on her 100th birthday.

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Let me admit up front that I'm no great fan of this month's cover girl, Ayn Rand, whose 100th birthday falls on February 2 and whose legacy we analyze on page 22. It's a doubly embarrassing admission: Not only is Rand one of the most important figures in the libertarian movement of which reason is a part, but this magazine's name is an homage to her philosophy, Objectivism, which ascribes a key role to rationality. When a Boston University student named Lanny Friedlander started reason back in 1968 as a mimeographed call to arms—well, let's just say he very much grokked the Russian-born writer.

You'd never catch me writing a letter of complaint like the one former Rand acolyte and current Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan sent to The New York Times in 1957 after the paper blasted Atlas Shrugged. Just what was wrong with a novel in which "parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should?" huffed the man who decades later would popularize the term "irrational exuberance." I'm more simpatico with Officer Barbrady, the illiterate cop on South Park who declared, "At first I was happy to be learning to read…but then I read…Atlas Shrugged… because of this, I am never reading again."

Yet as Contributing Editor Cathy Young shows in her brilliant essay about "Ayn Rand at 100," Rand continues not merely to draw our attention but to command it. A century after her birth and more than a decade after her death, Rand remains one of the best-selling and most widely influential figures in American thought and culture. As we document in "Rand-O-Rama," she casts a long shadow, not simply providing punch lines for South Park but infusing such recent movie hits as The Incredibles with what a Times reviewer called "a disdain for mediocrity." She is even getting newfound respect from academics.

What's the secret of Rand's cultural staying power? At her best, notes Young, Rand provided "liberal capitalism with a moral foundation." That's no small feat in a world that, even after the fall of Nazism, communism, and other collectivist ideologies, still looks with suspicion on economic self-interest. Rand also celebrated the individual in a mass age, creating a series of memorable, compelling characters who embodied or emboldened the aspirations of millions in a time of often stultifying conformity, bureaucracy, and routinization.

But as important to Rand's hold on the public imagination is the great gulf between her fictional heroes and the often tawdry, disheartening details of her own biography, especially the cult-like obedience she demanded of her inner circle. In the gap between Rand's soaring ideals and her lived reality, we see in particularly strong relief both the creative power of individual desire and its vast capacity for intolerance and delusion. In a world in which more people have more control over their lives than ever before, that's something to always be pondering.