4 Prominent Ayn Rand Recanters
Sometimes famous people admit they admire Ayn Rand. And then sometimes they recant. Why?
Every sentient being should be aware that a core unquestionable intellectual underpinning of progressive Internet modernity, one as undeniably certain as that A is A, is that Ayn Rand was an idiotic villain and all her fans are malign, childish bozos. (If you are sadly uneducated on this fact, start here.)
Still, among the millions of benighted folk who have bought and loved the in-print-for-decades-and-going-strong novels and nonfiction of the controversial Russian emigre, are the occasional prominent person willing to buck that consensus.
And then sometimes the consensus bucks back, and a Rand fan becomes a Rand recanter.
Rand's first biographer (and for many years a close friend and associate of hers) Barbara Branden (see her excellent The Passion of Ayn Rand ) told me something interesting about those who later deny their youthful indiscretion in admiring Ayn Rand when I interviewed her for my book Radicals for Capitalism:
people figured out how unpopular her ideas were, and maybe they didn't outgrow anything, maybe they were just afraid to admit to it publicly because the wrath of God would descend on them from people they knew.
Branden's take on the phenomenon of Rand recanting captures a lot, but it can get a bit more complicated.
Herewith, 4 examples of Ayn Rand Recanters.
1) Neil Peart, the "I'm really a good guy, stop riding my ass" recanter.
Peart, drummer and lyricist for rock band Rush, would clearly rather not be asked about his early-career loud enthusiasm for Rand and her ideas. The well-reviewed 2010 documentary on the band, Beyond the Lighted Stage, mentions her barely at all. (I recall not at all but am using less certain language as I don't have a full transcript to consult.) Rand's importance is ignored by the film, though she was central to one of the core conundrums of Rush history: why did rock intellectuals and tastemakers hate on this excellent band so much and for so long?
After years of Peart's lyrics dissing metaphorical arboreal labor unions, declaring his mind is not for rent to any God or government (Rand's top two villains), and hat-tipping explicitly in the liner notes to the concept LP 2112 to the "genius of Ayn Rand," he felt the albatross of 18-minute prog suites and silly '70s stage garbs was enough for one poor percussionist to bear, and decided to drop the burden of Rand.
Peart most recently tried to distance himself from Randian libertarianism in a Rolling Stone profile of the band, as discussed here by Matt Welch, who quoted the core of Peart's apostasy:
Rush's earlier musical take on Rand, 1975's unimaginatively titled "Anthem," is more problematic [than 2112], railing against the kind of generosity that Peart now routinely practices: "Begging hands and bleeding hearts will/Only cry out for more." And "The Trees," an allegorical power ballad about maples dooming a forest by agitating for "equal rights" with lofty oaks, was strident enough to convince a young Rand Paul that he had finally found a right-wing rock band.
Peart outgrew his Ayn Rand phase years ago, and now describes himself as a "bleeding-heart libertarian," citing his trips to Africa as transformative. He claims to stand by the message of "The Trees," but other than that, his bleeding-heart side seems dominant. Peart just became a U.S. citizen, and he is unlikely to vote for Rand Paul, or any Republican. Peart says that it's "very obvious" that Paul "hates women and brown people" — and Rush sent a cease-and-desist order to get Paul to stop quoting "The Trees" in his speeches.
"For a person of my sensibility, you're only left with the Democratic party," says Peart, who also calls George W. Bush "an instrument of evil." "If you're a compassionate person at all. The whole health-care thing — denying mercy to suffering people? What? This is Christian?"
"Outgrew" is the closest thing to an explanation, and there is no explanation at all for his reasoning that libertarianoid Rand Paul (whose name is no relation to Ms. Rand's) is anti-woman and anti-brown people, or what about his "sensibility" matches the Democrats.
Peart clearly vibed with a general anti-authoritarianism he saw in Rand, and with her objection to enforced equality. But a more nuanced attempt to distance himself from Randian libertarianism in an interview Peart did for a feature in the libertarian magazine Liberty in 1997 (by the Institute for Justice's Scott Bullock) made it clear that Peart's attraction to Rand was more about her underlying sense of individualism and the nobility of the artist and his intentions than it was about all the complicated policy implications that Rand, and her libertarian fans, drew from her philosophy.
Bullock skillfully teases out the fact that Rand's morality implied a belief in free markets as well as a general individualist sense of "freedom" seemed to have never quite been embedded in Peart's DNA. And indeed Fountainhead's individualist message is largely that the creative artist can and ought to follow his own whims and spirit no matter what markets do (while never suggesting anyone should be forced to support a great artist, or prevented by force from supporting mediocre ones).
It remains one of the great cultural mysteries of Rand that despite her work's deeply powerful didacticism—even her enemies usually recognize it as powerful—a vanishingly small proportion of readers who adored the novels adopt or sometimes even get their political implications. (For Atlas Shrugged at least I can't imagine being able to get through the novel as a progressive or progsymp without feeling like a dog having your face shoved in a pile of excrement you left on the carpet for hundreds of pages.)
From Bullock's great 1997 Peart profile:
Contrary to Rand's rejection of any form of government welfare, Peart supports a safety net for those in need. Although he would prefer that welfare be funded voluntarily, he is not convinced that private charity alone could support the truly needy. Also, Peart was turned off by Rand's attacks on hippies and Woodstock…
Although Peart is now inclined to write off Rand's hostility toward the Woodstock kids as a "generational thing," it was her essay on Woodstock and rock music which forced him to realize that he did not agree with Rand on every issue.
"That was when I started to not become a Randroid, and started to part from being a true believer. I realized that there were certain elements of her thinking and work that were affirming for me, and others that weren't. That's an important thing for any young idealist to discover—that you are still your own person."
Over the years, Peart has made fewer direct references to Rand, and he admits that one cause of the decline has been the intense hostility such sentiments have evoked among rock critics, especially in Britain:
"There was a remarkable backlash, especially from the English press—this being the late seventies, when collectivism was still in style, especially among journalists. They were calling us "junior fascists" and "Hitler lovers." It was a total shock to me."
That seems like a smoking gun: Peart's aversion to crediting Rand much now seems largely based on exactly the phenomenon Barbara Branden fingered: public pressure.
2) Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) : the "I'm a God-fearing man, don't be afraid of me in the White House" recanter.
Ryan was happy to discuss Rand's political wisdom early in his congressional career, including telling me in 2009 that, as per Rand, "we owe it to the American people to give them a clear choice: Do you want a collectivist welfare state or do you want to get back to being a free market? We need to make a moral, not just practical or statistical, case."
But by the time he was Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate in 2012, Ryan was ferociously wiping the sweat of his reputation as a Rand-lover off his fevered brow.
As I wrote:
"I reject her philosophy," Ryan says firmly. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas," who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. "Don't give me Ayn Rand," he says.
Ryan, from his twisty TARP endorsement, is the worst sort of Rand villain: a man whose knowledge and understanding embrace free markets, but who traduces them for reasons of phony "practicality" or belief that one has to go against one's values to defend them….
Alas, making a moral case for capitalism–which is the same as the moral case for human liberty–requires a voting record that shows an actual belief in the notion that government has, if any, only the powers that the individual can rightly grant them. That's the power to defend one's individual right to life and justly acquired property. That does not include many, many things Ryan as congressman has supported, from TARP to Medicare Part D to auto bailouts (as un-Randian as you could imagine, as Conor Friedersdorf noted in his article rightly dubbing Ryan a Rand villain) and the Patriot Act.
By the time someone runs for high office, trying to suss out what they sincerely believe is impossible. But I suspect that a young Ryan did indeed think of himself as a Rand devotee (while always rejecting the atheism) but the "realism" of being a congressman and running for vice president beat it out of him. In its way, then, another variation on Branden's "afraid of what the neighbors will think" motive for Rand apostasy.
3) Alan Greenspan, the "my life will seem a shame and a scam unless I recant" recanter.
The very first time superstar former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's name ever appeared in the New York Times was a 1957 letter to the editor defending the author of Atlas Shrugged for her "celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment" in her novel.
From there, Greenspan went for years being lauded and/or slapped for his role in making the Federal Reserve, a giant machine of government price controls, inflation, and cronyism seem like the very fountainhead of the modern "free market economy."
While an active Rand disciple and before he became chieftain of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan wrote a sharp essay in 1966 for a Rand-edited journal about the gold standard, explaining it as the only proper money for a free people, and declaring "that gold and economic freedom are inseparable, that the gold standard is an instrument of laissez-faire and that each implies and requires the other." (Rand loved it so much she included it in one of her own books, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)
Ron Paul, when a congressman grilling Greenspan at hearings, liked to ask Greenspan if he stood by it still. As Paul told me in 2006:
[In a 1999 meeting] I dug out my copy of The Objectivist Newsletter [edited by Ayn Rand] where he wrote his gold article [in which Greenspan praised the gold standard as a source of economic stability, guarantor of economic liberty, protector of savings, and check on government's power to inflate and spend]. When we started talking I flashed it out and said, "Remember this?" He said, "Yes, I certainly do."
I opened it up to his article and said, "Remember writing this article? Would you autograph it for me?" And while he was autographing it I said, "You want to write a disclaimer on it?" "No, I read it recently," he said, "and I wouldn't change a word."
Toward the end of his reign I brought that up again in a congressional hearing. I was a little more confrontational with him about what he used to think and why it's different now, and he said, "That's a long time ago, and I no longer subscribe to those views." He did put a disclaimer on it. The first encounter was private, and the second was a public statement.
When Greenspan was named to President Gerald Ford's Council of Economic Advisers, a proud Rand attended the ceremony. She was a woman who could, alas, still be bamboozled by status and gewgaws of respectability connected to the U.S. government and Republican politicians, though her philosophy should have inoculated her against that soul-shame.
For years, as well detailed in this 1997 profile of Greenspan's relationship with Rand and her ideas by R.W. Bradford, Greenspan would make vaguely libertarian anti-regulation and pro-gold standard comments in public, while noting that even as chairman of the Federal Reserve he did not have the power to implement such ideas. He'd point out that libertarian ideals such as abolishing antitrust were, while still endorsed by him, clearly beyond the politically possible, so, whatever.
By 2008, the retired Greenspan was betraying free market principles by foolishly claiming that it was lack of sufficient regulation and a flaw in his own free market ideology that led to the mortgage-driven 2008 economic downturn rather than recognizing and stressing the role of his own Fed's interest rate policies, federal mortgage lending policies, or the moral hazard of well understood "too big to fail" bailout ideology at least as much.
Oh, Greenspan will still rise from the crypt to bitch about entitlement spending, but he represents the sort of equivocating compromiser with values that anyone who used to understand Rand would have to hate, including himself. But his reputation is now irreducibly connected with the Federal Reserve and the aftereffects of its policies, and he seems to have sold any belief in the virtues of a genuinely free market to blaming other things for clearly Fed-connected downturns. If Rand was right, then most of his career was wrong. That's hard to admit.
4) Travis Kalanick, the "let's just change the subject, mm?" recanter.
Kalanick, CEO of Uber, the rideshare app that has outraged the world through acts like applying economic logic to its pricing scheme which substituted willingness and ability to spend hated cash money for the luck of being first in line as a method of rationing rides, signalled his plutocratic evil a few years back by using as his Twitter avatar an image from the cover of Rand's novel The Fountainhead.
While not defending himself or her as a full-on devotee, he's merely cagey, not denying her three times and more, to the Washington Post in July 2012. At the same time he's implicitly granting the radioactive nature of being linked to old Ayn:
I don't know what you're talking about. [Laughs.] It's one of my favorite books. It's less of a political statement. It's just personally one of my favorite books. I'm a fan of architecture.
The Randian philosophy has come to bear on this situation, you would admit.
That's probably true. I'd say there's an uncanny resemblance, especially on the "Atlas Shrugged" side.
Too much a dude to want to seem locked down to some nerdy "philosophy," Kalanick began making light of the association without arguing against it or saying where he and Rand disagreed. As a Financial Times profile last May put it:
He thinks [Fountainhead is] an "awesome book" but takes issue with the way the press latched on to the association: "All of a sudden, I'm a raging objectivist, or whatever it is."
Kalanick is already hated so much for Uber's aggressive "act first, get legal permission later" practices and willingness to play dirty tricks against both competitors and journalists that he must imagine, who needs to have all the hate Rand trails with her add to the hatepile?
Peart and Kalanick have, bless them, as artists and entrepreneurs, made a worthwhile impact on the world that will last. (Hard to say the same for Greenspan and Ryan.) And it is no one's obligation to never change one's mind.
But you will note none of them seem willing to explain in philosophical depth how and where things they once thought were true or wise are no longer. Barbara Branden's former husband Nathaniel, lieutenant to and longtime lover of Rand's, had this to say once about those who consider Ayn Rand not just wrong but an evil menace (which is the vast majority of those who deign to write about her at all).
Rand's detractors, Branden wrote, rarely deign "publicly to name the essential ideas of Atlas Shrugged and to attempt to refute them. No one has been willing to declare: 'Ayn Rand holds that man must choose his values and actions exclusively by reason, that man has the right to exist for his own sake, that no one has the right to seek values from others by physical force—and I consider such ideas wrong, evil and socially dangerous.'"
Certainly, it can't do those who must face most rock critics or fans, or most GOP voters and donors, or endless testimonial dinners for one's historical greatness in keeping the fiat money game afloat a while longer, or a plethora of city regulators, any good at all to be weighted down with Ayn Rand's reputation.
Worse even than her reputation might be the annoying prick at the conscience that Rand represents. As Barbara Branden once wrote: "In Ayn's presence, and in her work, one felt that command: a command to function at one's best, to be the most that one could be, to drive oneself constantly harder, never to disappoint one's highest ideals."
That's a burden that any frail human would want to lay down toot sweet, especially if in doing so one earns the plaudits of a world of reflexive Rand haters for "maturing" out of such a "childish interest."