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April 26, 2012 3:13 PM Paul Ryan, “Second-Hander”

By Ed Kilgore

So we learn this week from an interview with National Review’s Robert Costa that Paul Ryan laughs off his identification as a big fan of Ayn Rand as an “urban legend,” based on little more than his youthful enjoyment of (and later, philosophical “bantering” about) her “dusty novels.” No, he sternly asserts, he rejects Rand’s “atheist philosophy;” give him St. Thomas Aquinas any old day!

Costa does not report that Ryan specifically denies the actual foundation for the “urban legend” associating him conspicuously with Rand: his remark in 2005, when he was hardly a callow teenager, that Rand inspired his entire career in public service, or his habit of giving copies of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s militant magnum opus, to his congressional interns in 2003.

Now is this just a tempest in a teapot? Am I, as Ross Douthat complained of Jonathan Chait, blowing this taste for a controversial novelist and thinker way out of proportion?

I don’t think so. The thing about Ayn Rand, as anyone who has actually read her works can attest, is that she offered readers an all-or-nothing proposition. She didn’t entertain, she instructed. This was most evident in Atlas Shrugged, whose centerpiece was an endless didactic “radio broadcast” by her hero John Galt, identifying all human misery with the “mysticism of the mind” (supernatural religion) and the “mysticism of the muscle” (socialism, or more accurately, the rejection of strict laissez-faire capitalism), and with the ethics of altruism both reflected.

After penning Atlas Shrugged, Rand spent most of the rest of her life making sure everyone understood that her philosophy was a comprehensive system that rose or fell as a whole. As Whittaker Chambers said in a famous review of the novel that appeared in—you guessed it!—National Review:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal….Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

One of Rand’s favorite epithets was aimed at people who picked and chose from philosophical systems like hers: “second-handers,” people with no originality or capacity for deep thinking, or, for that matter, ethics. I honestly don’t know how anyone could read her and tout her as a major influence or encourage impressionable young minds to consume her works without understanding how frequently and passionately she argued that her words were not for the religious believer or for anyone who professes to care about the poor, as Ryan claims piously to care. As I observed in an article for Democracy a couple of years ago aimed precisely at the sort of casual Randism that Ryan exemplifies:

Rand’s famous intolerance should not be dismissed as simply the psychological aberration of a flawed genius. She feared, for good reason, what lesser minds might do with the intellectual dynamite of her work when divorced from its philosophical context. The prophetess of “the virtue of selfishness” made rigorous demands of herself and all her followers to live self-consciously “heroic” lives under a virtual tyranny of reason and self-mastery, and to reject every imaginable natural and supernatural limitation on personal responsibility for every action and its consequences. Take all that away-take everything away that Rand actually cared about-and her fictional work represents little more than soft porn for middle-brow reactionaries who seek to rationalize their resentment of the great unwashed.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Paul Ryan is a secret “Objectivist” who keeps gold dollar sign pins in his underwear drawer. More likely, though, he doesn’t understand Ayn Rand any better than he seems to understand Catholic social teachings. In either event, his reputation as a deep thinker whose brilliance and good will demand respect from everyone across the political spectrum strikes me as entirely undeserved.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Rich on April 26, 2012 3:25 PM:

    Recognition of he cultishness of the modern Right (Federalist Society, Randianism, Grover Norquist death hold) has never really broken beyond the political junky world. Pushing teh tie between Rand and Ryan into the mainstream would help open this up as a more mainstream story.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 26, 2012 3:34 PM:

    As for "a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained," can anyone think of a better phrase to describe the fact-free, evidence-challenged Paul Ryan?

  • Peter C on April 26, 2012 3:49 PM:

    I'm not taking Paul Ryan's word on ANYTHING. Sorry, too late Paul - it doesn't matter what you say. No 'benefit of the doubt' for liars.

    I do wonder what Senator Aqua-buddha thinks about his comments, though.

  • cwolf on April 26, 2012 4:11 PM:

    Ayn Rand Railed Against Government Benefits, But Grabbed Social Security and Medicare When She Needed Them
    www.alternet.org/teaparty/149721/ayn_rand_railed_against_government_benefits,_but_grabbed_social_security_and_medicare_when_she_needed_them

  • Just Dropping By on April 26, 2012 4:17 PM:

    Ed, you've broken the cardinal rule of modern liberalism -- you're supposed to accept conservatives' assertions that they are Ayn Rand fans at face value so you can smear both them and Rand at the same time, rather than point out that their positions almost all completely inconsistent with her philosophy. (E.g., Rand was a pro-choice atheist who thought it was OK for women to have pre-marital sex and believed that the Union was justified in invading the Confederacy to end slavery.)

  • SecularAnimist on April 26, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Paul Ryan is a bought-and-paid-for corporate stooge who says and does whatever it takes to bamboozle gullible idiots into voting for him, so he can advance the agenda of the ultra-rich corporate oligarchs who own him.

    So he's perfectly happy to play a "libertarian" or an "Objectivist" or a "Catholic" on TV at any given time, if that's what is called for at the moment to bilk the rubes.

  • MuddyLee on April 26, 2012 4:31 PM:

    I think it's important to attack republicans who have promoted Ayn Rand's books. Giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns is practically child abuse. It's the only one of her books I ever read - it was enough. We should not elect anybody who professes to be a disciple of Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan is either dangerous or stupid, or both. In SC, we have Mick Mulvaney, also a follower of Ayn Rand, representing the 5th Congressional district since 2010. He too supposedly requires his staffers to read Ayn Rand. How "Christian" republicans vote for such a man is a mystery to me. Bring back John Spratt!

  • Robert on April 26, 2012 4:33 PM:

    "More likely, though, he doesn’t understand Ayn Rand any better than he seems to understand Catholic social teachings."

    Way, way more likely!

  • jim filyaw on April 26, 2012 4:48 PM:

    that paul ryan suffices as a g.o.p. house intellectual is proof positive of the bareness of their cupboard.

  • Daddy Love on April 26, 2012 5:10 PM:

    To the GOP, he's a deep thinker?

    To cite the old Jewish humor,
    "By you, he's a deep thinker. By me, he's a deep thinker. But by a deep thinker, he's no deep thinker."

  • kindness on April 26, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Ed is preaching to the choir here and I for one appreciate it.

  • Area Man on April 26, 2012 6:18 PM:

    I love when Republicans deny that they're fans of Rand just because of her atheism. Her callous indifference to the suffering of others and her bottomless egocentrism are all well and good, but rejecting religious authority and mysticism? That's where we draw the line!

  • smartalek on April 26, 2012 7:27 PM:

    No reference to Ayn Rand's foundational impact on -- and thus partial responsibility for -- the current sociopathic manifestation of American Conservatism is complete without a reminder that Alan Greenspan was an early, eager, full-fledged, and hard-core convert to the Randian cult.
    He famously responded to a harsh review of "Atlas Shrugged" in the NYTimes with a letter-to-the-editor that included this gem:

    "Parasites who avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should."

    (Emphasis added.)
    Explains a lot of the political and economic history of the last 32 years.

  • TCinLA on April 26, 2012 8:41 PM:

    her fictional work represents little more than soft porn for middle-brow reactionaries who seek to rationalize their resentment of the great unwashed.

    Isn't Ryan more of a "low forehead" reactionary? As in, "small brained"? Look at him - lowest forehead I've ever seen! And a "widow's peak," generally considered by fundies to be a sign of a witch.

    Most College Sophomores who fall in love with Rand come to their senses by Junior Year. Unless they're Young Republicans.

  • ldm on April 26, 2012 9:08 PM:

    The irony is, Ayn Rand hated politicians -- she considered them the ultimate "second-handers (people who lived off the efforts of others). Her heroes, like John Galt, were engineers -- people who created things.

  • HMDK on April 27, 2012 5:12 AM:

    "Just Dropping By on April 26, 2012 4:17 PM:

    Ed, you've broken the cardinal rule of modern liberalism -- you're supposed to accept conservatives' assertions that they are Ayn Rand fans at face value so you can smear both them and Rand at the same time, rather than point out that their positions almost all completely inconsistent with her philosophy. (E.g., Rand was a pro-choice atheist who thought it was OK for women to have pre-marital sex and believed that the Union was justified in invading the Confederacy to end slavery.)"

    There's no cardinal rule.
    In fact, I think the things you're pointing out are pretty common knowledge. But so what? It doesn't change anything. Her philosophy is still regressive and insane horseshit. It's sociopathy incarnate.

    "pro-choice atheist who thought it was OK for women to have pre-marital sex and believed that the Union was justified in invading the Confederacy to end slavery.)"

    Hey, that describes me! Still doesn't change shit about the evils of Rand's FUCK THE WEAK THEY SHOULD BE EXPLOITED, IT'S ONLY NATURAL! idiocy.