Ayn Rand and America’s new culture war
From Rush Limbaugh to President Obama, Ayn Rand and her book 'Atlas Shrugged' are recalibrating America.
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Since the economic collapse of 2008, the controversial novelist and philosopher has emerged as a leading intellectual on the right – and she’s been dead for nearly 30 years.
Rush Limbaugh touts Rand as a prophet of sorts. “Ayn Rand, she wrote ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” he told his listeners. “The sequel, ‘Atlas Puked,’ we’re in the middle of it.” At the tea parties that swept the nation last spring, protesters waved signs claiming “Ayn Rand was right” and warning “Read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ before it happens.”
The fresh appeal of 'Atlas Shrugged'
Consider this: “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s most famous novel, is set in a dystopian future America, where a socialist government has brought the country to the brink of ruin. Fleeing punitive regulations and crushing taxation, the country’s top industrialists and executives have gone on strike, virtually shutting down the economy.
For American conservatives, the significance of Rand’s message is clear. “Atlas Shrugged” is prophetic, they say, and it warns us all of the coming collapse.
It wasn’t always so. In her day, leading conservatives denounced Rand for her atheism and immorality, and her economic ideas were scarcely mentioned.
Conservative author Whittaker Chambers attacked Rand as a godless authoritarian in his famously brutal review of “Atlas Shrugged,” printed in an early issue of William F. Buckley’s seminal conservative magazine, National Review. The book’s message, according to Chambers, was “to a gas chamber – go!” Anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly stopped reading Rand’s other novel, “The Fountainhead,” as soon as she reached the infamous rape scene, horrified at the immorality and violence of what Rand once described as “rape by engraved invitation” and condoned.
But Rand did not have much patience for conservatives, calling herself instead a “radical for capitalism.” She intended her individualistic philosophy, objectivism, to be a guide to the future, not the past.
Rand identified four basic components to her philosophy: objective reality, the supremacy of reason, the virtue of selfishness, and the importance of laissez faire capitalism. She celebrated the virtue of selfishness and attacked religion for being irrational.
These aspects of Rand made her alien to an earlier generation of religious conservatives who gleefully launched a “culture war” against secular America. In the 1980s and ’90s, the culture war was waged over issues of gender and sexuality, and religious values were central.