This week in Salon's troll-the-libertarians business model:
Before I say anything about the interview, I should note that I think Ehrenreich is one of the better writers working on the left these days. I haven't spent any time with her most famous text, Nickel and Dimed—I'd rather read an actual poor person's account of her life, not a successful writer's Poor Like Me stunt book—but Dancing in the Streets, Fear of Falling, and For Her Own Good all have interesting ideas to impart, and I've heard good things about Bright-Sided. Within the world of people able to use the phrase "decade of greed" with a straight face, her work is worthier than most.
Furthermore, I've just said more nice things about Ehrenreich in one paragraph than I've ever said about Ayn Rand. Seriously: Looking back on a quarter century as a libertarian writer, I can recall only one occasion where I wrote something positive about Rand, way back in the '90s—and even that wasn't a case of me taking pleasure in her work so much as it was a case of me taking pleasure in the fact that it was now possible to read her in the former Communist bloc. I've never been a Randian, and when I take part in intra-libertarian debates about Rand, it's usually to criticize her.
I say all that just to make it clear that if any Reason writer might conceivably take pleasure in watching Barbara Ehrenreich attack Ayn Rand, it's probably me. But I can't watch Ehrenreich attack Rand, because despite the impression that Salon's headline might give, she never attacks. Frank has a lot to say about Rand, not all of it necessarily accurate, but Ehrenreich replies with a big (I paraphrase) "yeah, maybe, I never paid much attention to her." Somehow, this exchange occupies nearly 300 words of the interview and gives the piece its headline.
Here's the relevant part of the conversation:
Q: Reading about the teenage you, I kept thinking of Ayn Rand. And Ayn Rand is the preeminent philosopher of teenagers. They love her. She's huge when readers are in high school. And there's a strong whiff of Ayn Rand in the teenage Barbara. Think about it: the atheism, the primacy of reason, the horror of feeling responsibility for your fellow humans, which you describe very vividly. The solipsism, the complete selfishness. This is all her. And yet, you grow up and take it all in a very different direction.
A: I was not consciously that interested in Ayn Rand. I read a novel. I probably read "Atlas Shrugged"…
Q: Or "Fountainhead" maybe?
A: Yeah, one of those and [I thought], "I don't know, that's pretty interesting." But no, philosophically, I just thought of her as light entertainment.
Q: I think of your life story. You might not know this but the whole plot of "Atlas Shrugged" is a strike. It's a strike novel. The billionaires go on strike. Because they have agency and they are geniuses and the rest of us are subhuman. You're the anti-Ayn Rand.
A: One strand in here is from my upbringing. The blue-collar roots and the lingering royalty [sic] to Butte (Montana) and all that it stood for. It was a very big principle in my upbringing that you should respect everybody's work. The street sweeper. Everybody. You should never look down on anybody for their work.
Q: Of course with Rand it's different. You respect engineers and geniuses…
A: Oh no. The whole Butte spirit was, you don't respect anybody in a suit, ever.
Q: So it's the opposite of Ayn Rand. It's exactly the opposite.
How lucky Salon is to have an interviewer as intrepid as Thomas Frank, a man who will go to such lengths to ferret out his feelings on a subject and to share his findings with the person he's interviewing.