Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan: the prehistory

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Now that the Ryan-Rand temblor has subsided–with a nice little SiricoWintersDonohue aftershock–I’d recommend taking a look at “Godless Capitalism: Ayn Rand and the Conservative Movement,” a 2004 article by UVA historian Jennifer Burns that shows just how longstanding The Rand Problem has been for American conservatives. William F. Buckley, it seems, took an instant dislike to Rand and her ideas, and kept her outside the pale of National Review‘s broad conservative pasture, most notably via Whittaker Chamber’s 1957 evisceration, “Big Sister Is Watching You.” Denouncing Rand’s “materialism of the Right,” Chambers accused Rand of embodying a species of fascism: “[F]rom almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber–go!'”

It was, of course, Rand’s militant atheism that made her so repellent to the likes of Buckley and Chambers. Indeed, Burns argues that the need to differentiate the NF worldview from Rand’s led Buckley to devote more of the magazine’s attention to religion, which culminated in the hiring of Will Herberg as its first religion editor in 1961.

Yet despite Buckley’s best efforts, Rand’s appeal to conservatives could not be stifled, as Catholicism’s traditional anti-capitalist ethos faded and unreconstructed free-market ideology grew ever stronger on the Right. Paul Ryan is hardly the only conservative Catholic untroubled by the cultural contradictions of Randism. For the troubled, Fr. Robert Sirico’s tortured interpretation of Atlas Shrugged’s Nietzchean superman John Galt as a Christ figure seeks to redeem Rand–somehow a Christian despite herself–for the purposes of conservative Catholicism. Meanwhile, at NR, they continue to fight the good fight. A losing cause, apparently.

  • Chambers’ claim that Rand was a materialist of any kind remains as ill-founded and bizarre now as it was upon publication. Rand is determinedly anti-materialism, from the gross materialism of the Soviets to behaviorist psychology to even the atomistic materialism of Sir Isaac Newton. She held that consciousness was an irreducible primary and that it could never be disregarded. All of “Atlas Shrugged” is a paean to the products of technology as products, in her system and view, of high spiritual values. Considering how they have increased our lifespans and increased our standard of living, it is hard to argue with her.
    One part of the foolishness of the recent debates about Rand is the idea that agreeing with Rand’s prediction and diagnoses in “Atlas Shrugged” – the accuracy of which has been demonstrated in the last few years to a nicety – somehow magically commits one to agreement with her total philosophy. Would this argument be extended to an atheist leftist who recommends Tolstoy or Victor Hugo?
    The other part is a specific misrepresentation of Christianity. Christianity is not a pro-Statism religion; indeed, given who killed their Savior, it tends to the anti-State. (This is something the left has not yet dealt with.) Nowhere in the Bible does it say that wealth should be expropriated and redistributed by the dubious means of government structures; it speaks of personal and *voluntary* charity. One might add, looking at the horrific debt and unfunded liabilities situation that the U.S. is in right now, that the Bible and Jesus were wise in staying away from government panaceas.
    This entire kabuki charade is in bad faith. The Bible does not advocate any Progressive notions of “economic justice.” The progressives who have suddenly discovered religion and its necessary role in politics – after thirty decades and more of stridently and rightly insisting it must be kept out of politics – are not sincere. After this temporary rhetorical bubble is over, they will resume their previous, also ad-hoc, declarations.
    As for the “sociopath” accusation, this is what comes of copying attack website garbage. The whole thing rests upon one author – Michael Prescott’s – highly selective excerpting and chopping up of a private [i.e., thinking out loud without clarifications ] journal written when Rand was barely out of her teens, fresh from the blood bath of 1920s Soviet Russia – and still made it very clear that her read on the personalities of the observers showed that they were not appalled by Hickman’s crime – she said there had been far worse, without the same spectacle of glee – but by his flamboyant and mocking defiance of society. She – who was writing about a *legally innocent man* at the time of the trial – even called him a repulsive and purposeless criminal. Enough with the disinformation and – yes – Satanizing of Ayn Rand.

  • Dave

    Talk about tortured interpretations of things: Mr. Silk is either stupid or mendacious in saying that Fr. Sirico 1) is attempting to redeem Rand; 2) believes that Galt was a Christ figure; or that Rand was “somehow a Christian despite herself”.
    Give us the citations man, or recant. It is not was the man wrote. Have you no shame.

  • Mark Silk

    Here’s one citation, Dave: “Galt is for Rand the ideal man—the Man of the Mind (the logos); the One upon whom the world and its creative capacity depend. He is, in a real sense for Rand, the God-Man.” Sounds like a Christ figure to me.

  • Dave

    Sorry, this will not do: YOU said, “Fr. Robert Sirico’s tortured interpretation of Atlas Shrugged’s Nietzchean superman John Galt as a Christ figure seeks to redeem Rand–somehow a Christian despite herself–for the purposes of conservative Catholicism.” Your citation has Sirico saying, “Galt is for Rand the ideal man…” Now, if this is not a distortion of someone’s clearly stated position, I don’t know what is. The priest did not say he believed it, but that Rand did. Come on, is this the best you can do? You are simply not honest. Disagree with the man all you want, but first understand what he is saying: that is the first rule of debate.

  • Mark Silk

    I didn’t say that Sirico believed it. All I said was that he made the interpretation. Rand herself certainly didn’t. In my view, the whole post was to intended to portray Rand as a kind of Christian in spite of herself–and therefore to make her more acceptable to Christians. You apparently disagree. So be it.

  • Kevin

    I’ve read Frank Cocozzelli for a while now, and I think he makes a good case:
    Mr. Brown writes that, “The Bible does not advocate any Progressive notions of “economic justice.” How do Matthew 25 and Acts 4 fit in?
    Or this?
    “He that oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he that gives to rich, shall surely come to want.”
    Better we read more William Cavanaugh.

  • Tremendous issues here. I am very glad to look your post. Thanks so much and I am taking a look forward to touch you.
    Will you please drop me a mail?