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Ayn Rand and Silicon Valley

Why are local modern business icons so transfixed with the queen of mean?
SELFISH HERO: Ayn Rand's protagonists found success by eschewing empathy and looking out for numero uno.

Once upon a time, when the Silicon Valley was young, it was suffused with idealism—corporate teamwork, lateral movement and open doors. The H-P way.

Then the second wave arrived, bearing a different philosophy. Enamored with what Thomas Frank described as "fantasies of frictionless work," these would-be masters of technology carried a gigantic tome called Atlas Shrugged.

Rich with flattery for pathfinders and industrialists, Ayn Rand's 1957 novel left its imprint here.

Thus the relevance of Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed. It's Lisa Duggan's handy critique of Rand—philosopher, screenplay writer and composer of novels that one needs a hydraulic jack to lift.

"Rand celebrates the individual genius entrepreneur, who should be left alone to pursue his brilliant vision without interference from government regulation, organized workers or social inferiors," Duggan, an NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, says from her Brooklyn office.

"Arguably, this is exactly how many other tech gurus see themselves," Duggan adds. "Silicon Valley is chock full of Rand fans, who fashion their self-images in part through The Fountainhead's Howard Roark or Atlas Shrugged's John Galt"—two characters who opted to abandon everything and start anew rather than work within the constraints of institutional authority.

Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel and Uber founder Travis Kalanick have all paid homage to Rand. Upon the occasion of Jobs' resignation from Apple, Steve Wozniak told Bloomberg that he remembered Jobs as a young man: "He was reading a lot of books, I think Atlas Shrugged might have been one of them back then."

Rand's appeal in Libertarian circles is often linked to a belief system that she termed "Objectivism." The philosophy's detractors argue that Rand's worldview amounts to little more than extreme rejection of empathy and altruism; it's supporters might say it's more akin to the expression "my freedom ends where your nose begins."

Bigger names than just the local tycoons obsess over Rand. She's been a California phenomenon. In Orange County, the non-profit Ayn Rand Institute has been working to promote her ideas, taking a cue from the Gideon Society and donating thousands of copies of Atlas Shrugged to schools and other institutions. Some of the money for this enterprise came from local plutocrats. The website Inside Philanthropy reported in August 2016 that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation donated money to the ARI.

And Rand-fandom extends all the way the Washington D.C. As the Guardian's Jonathan Freedman writes, the Trump cabinet is "crammed with Objectivists," including the deposed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerman and his replacement, Mike Pompeo.

The Fountainhead is even an important text to the famously reading-averse Donald Trump. He once claimed Rand's forest-denuding book "relates to beauty, business, life and inner emotions."

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Fed, was among the most relentless Rand evangelists, and a link between Rand's cult days and her power from beyond the grave today. And until someone pointed out that Rand was an ardent atheist and an advocate of free love, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan claimed she was his favorite writer. The "zombie-eyed granny starver" as Esquire's Charles Pierce termed Ryan, used to gift interns with Rand's shoulder-dislocating text. Duggan notes, "When a reporter asked Ryan about [Rand's] atheism, he switched to Thomas Aquinas as his public favorite."

While she knew many a high school student enamored of Rand, Duggan never read her books until she started teaching at NYU. "I noticed her as an icon of the new right wing 'free market' policy elite, and became very curious about her. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and found them almost unreadably cartoonish. I was determined to figure out the sources of their massive popularity."

OBJECTIVIST ROMANTIC

From the beginning, Rand knew she had a mission: "I am challenging the cultural traditions of two and a half thousand years" she said. Aiming to reverse Western Civilization's attempts to make empathy a virtue, her Objectivist philosophy celebrated the individual and his power to make money.

Many critics decried Rand's novels as they came out. The regular New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott called The Fountainhead full of "dirty crawling." Duggan suggests that the reason Rand ran against the grain of the literary world of 1943 was because she rejected naturalistic writing and characters in favor of "a reliance on ideal types and clashes of values she learned from Victor Hugo."

Indeed, in the style of Romantic writers such as Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Rand gave the heroes of her novels many long-winded, monologues. Carly Jackson recalls being swept up in these passages, just as she was taken with some of the most verbose stretches of War and Peace.

HEAVY LIFT: 'Atlas Shrugged' argues that only the truly great rise in society.

Critiquing Rand for her wordiness feels like a cheap shot to Jackson, a Rand fan and the operations manager for The Seasteading Institute. "Trying to say what kind of art is invalid, that's a really tricky question and also pointless," she says. "We cherry pick everything we consume. I don't think Rand is any different

The Seasteading Institute, based in San Francisco and co-founded by Thiel, promises to someday build floating innovation incubators in international waters. The subtext is clear enough—free from government meddling, the great makers of the world will be able to reach their true potential. It's Atlas Shrugged meets Atlantis, or perhaps Galt's Gulch on the water.

Jackson—who became disillusioned with the government's ability to affect change after working for local lawmakers—sounds downright Rand-ian when expressing her excitement for the project.

"The long term vision is to create something completely new, because our understanding of government and nation is based on land and territory," she says. "All the land is taken, so we have to go out to sea to create a new society. You'll vote with your house and it will create a marketplace of societies. Galt's Gulch feels very limited to me now, because it's landlocked."

At least one critic writing during Rand's lifetime understood the impact the author was going to make. Lorin Pruette, a former Smith professor, claimed in the New York Times that The Fountainhead was "the only novel of ideas written by an American woman that I can recall." As an author, Rand is a unique phenomena: "A novel full of long, didactic speeches that became a best-seller!" Duggan exclaims in Mean Girl.

FROM RUSSIA

Born Alisa or Alyssa Rosenbaum in 1905, a year of liberal revolution in Russia, Rand grew up to be an escapee from the Soviet Union. She was a member of one of the few Jewish families allowed in the tsar's capital of St. Petersburg, instead of being confined, like most Eastern European Jews, to a designated area known as the Pale of Settlement.

Rand's father was a pharmacist, and her family had social clout. Alyssa was friends with Vladimir Nabokov's sister, Olga. (Nabokov's father was a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament.) After the Bolsheviks emerged and nationalized the Rand family's property, Rand attended the official film school the Soviets set up.

Cinema was the water in which this cold fish swam. The Soviet cinema of the 1920s was a world-leading laboratory for the development of editing and juxtaposition, the home of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Pudovkin and others. According to Mean Girl, Rand cared less about all that than she did about the German serial, The Indian Tomb (1921), with Conrad Veidt doing the Indiana Jones thing—discovering treasure and fighting credulous savages. Rand had a preference for blood-and-thunder fiction, which lasted until the Bond films started coming out in the 1960s. (As seen in her book The Romantic Manifesto, Rand loved 007's mercilessness. She hated it when the audience snickered at Sean Connery's quips, as if they didn't take him seriously.)

When Rand arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, she briefly worked for the producer Cecil B. DeMille, whom she later dismissed as "a box office chaser." Finding the movie capitol venal and dull, she was rapidly disillusioned. Still, she sold scripts, and in the fullness of time, she ended up living in the house that Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich once shared.

SHOW BUSINESS

Jerry Lewis once complained that everyone has two businesses: their own, and show. The proverb works in reverse. Movies about work often are thinly disguised allegories about the movie business. Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with its yes men, flatterers and snitches, could have been called The Movie Studio Around the Corner. In The Fountainhead, Rand swooned over the dashing, domineering architects of the old days, Frank Lloyd Wright or Erno Goldfinger. At heart, this was a business Rand understood even less than the metallurgy she wrote about in Atlas Shrugged.

Duggan suggests that Rand's novel The Fountainhead could be a symbol of the compromises in a film studio, a business Rand actually knew. The Fountainhead's protagonist is an architect named Howard Roark who demolishes his own skyscraper, sabotaging the labor of love because he can't bear the compromises that have come with its construction—with the interference of critics and other inferior minds. This is not exactly how skyscrapers are built, but Rand's central idea does describe the way movies are made, with rewrites, recasting, reshoots and flurries of notes from the studio, and with embittered directors who have credits on movies that they'd rather disavow.

Rand deserves some honor, not just as a female novelist of ideas, but also maybe the first novelist of ideas since the Marquis de Sade to write sexy. Popular with adolescents, the books reflect raging hormones, as per Masha Gessen's recent column about Duggan's Mean Girl in the New Yorker. Shortly after Gessen arrived here from Russia, her first girlfriend gave her Atlas Shrugged. Rand's tomes are mementos Gessen can't bring herself to get rid of; they still have a residual electric charge of young love all over them.

Rand's books still loom large in Jackson's imagination as well, and she's not ashamed to say it. Jackson believes Rand attracts young readers because the author chose heroes who lived life on their own terms.

"Young people are attracted to the idea of being able to shape their futures," she says. "When I read The Fountainhead, I was entranced by the idea of having an architect meet you, get to know you and design a house to your exact needs."

Jackson credits Rand's work with leading her to libertarianism and, by extension, guiding her to The Seasteading Institute. Drawing a connection between the philosophy of Rand's fictional architect, Roark, and the concept of seasteading, Jackson says, "you should build buildings to suit your lifestyle."

Regarding the famous rape scene in The Fountainhead, Duggan finds Rand guilty with an explanation. It's very popular. Mean Girl tells a story about the historian Susan Brownmiller, whose 1975 book is misidentified as Against Rape (actually, it's Against Our Will). When Brownmiller went to the New York Public Library to read The Fountainhead, the cinderblock-sized book fell open to that very page: such were the number of readers secretly gloating over Dominique Francon getting dominated.

The scene of Roark having his way with Dominique is unpacked by Duggan as more or less consensual power exchange. If that's true, it shows a positive side of Rand's work—her carelessness about people's prejudices against non-mainstream sexuality. And due to the coziness between the men in Dominique's life, as Duggan notes, there's been a bit of queer Objectivist fan fiction about what goes on between them all.

AT LAST, ATLAS

Atlas Shrugged misses that kind of fun. The gist of it is the appearance of a mystery man called John Galt, whose propaganda causes scads of the creative and engineering class to run off to a Colorado retreat called Galt's Gulch. Once these Atlases of the business realm lower their world-shouldering burden, the ordinary working jerk is left rudderless, as independent as a hog on ice. It's a painful lesson to unions, and government leeches alike as, at last, the masters of this world flex their muscles.

It was recently trifurcated, Lord of the Rings-wise, into a trio of films I cannot watch because my life is too short. Anyway, the greatest Ayn Rand moment in cinema comes not in the various movies made from her work, but from the natural, untutored Objectivism of a certain Mr. Harry Lime. Consider the famed scene on the Prater ferris wheel in Vienna in The Third Man (1949), a film noir version of the "Temptation on the Mount" in Matthew 4:8.

Lime (Orson Welles) is offering as much of an explanation as he can to a deceived friend named Holly (Joseph Cotten, coincidentally the star of the Rand-scripted film Love Letters). The enterprising Lime is currently wanted by the international police for a Trump-era sort of crime, selling poisonously diluted pharmaceuticals to sick children.

SHRUG: Author Lisa Duggan never understood Ayn Rand's appealóso she wrote a book about her. Photo by David Newkirk

Looking down at the ant-like crowd below the wheel, Lime asks Holly: "Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax—the only way you can save money nowadays."

If only a dollar sign were a badge of honor, as Rand thought it was, and if only Rand's humongous prose-boulders had the sparkle of The Third Man. Duggan notes that it's "sorely tempting" to make fun of Rand's writing. There's a further temptation to dismiss Rand's ideas because they are framed in ways that aren't particularly sophisticated, more so than the simple metaphors in a Socratic dialogue. Smouldering female life forces seek an overpowering by the right man, usually diffident muscular guys with one-syllable names so proactively guttural that it's like the sound of a cat puking: "Roark!" "Galt!"

Duggan retrieves items of startling aggressiveness in Rand's fiction, as when Rand describes a knobby kneed critic character in The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey, as "ridiculous and offensive in a bathing suit." The phrasing is like an elegant version of a Trumptweet. In Rand's work, ugly people are low. Pretty people are good. And, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, that is what fiction means.

AMERICAN DREAM

"Rand was an immigrant who came to the U.S. without much English and set out to write movies, plays and novels for a mass audience," Duggan observes. "That took impressive drive and determination. But her belief in European civilizational and racial superiority, her view of all who 'fail' in the Darwinian battle for 'success' as inferiors and losers, whose very lives don't matter—these 'values' mar every word she ever wrote."

Why Rand's top-down critique of humanity is so appealing is a question I had for the Ask a Libertarian page on Facebook, with its 30,000 subscribers. The volunteer "Kris" (he preferred not to give his last name) was the offspring of middle-class UAW workers. A military vet (2003-06), he was apolitical until the invasion of Iraq: "I paid attention to politics and I had made a single conclusion: it was based on lies."

Curious, Kris went to the The Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, in 2011—a school named in honor of Ludwig von Mises, one of the first economists to herald Rand's work. Kris married, had children and got a job at a local factory. One day he noticed the Ask a Libertarian site was looking for volunteers.

"Writing is something I had always wanted to try anyways, so I became a volunteer author. With a wife and three kids to pass the world down to, how could I believe the structure of society is rooted in politics and lies and coercion, and not do anything about it?"

Kris says, "I try to keep in mind that the people with whom we are conversing, no matter how much we disagree: we need them and they need us." Rand's work was important to him, when he was navigating his political change from the trade-unionist background he grew up in and the libertarian he is today. But, he adds: "I should mention most of our team at Ask a Libertarian hasn't read her work. She's not someone all libertarians go to for intellectual stimulation ... I never found the way in which she wrote particularly impressive, to be honest. Her characters in Atlas Shrugged were a little too plain.

"But the ideas she conveyed ... Charity is about a person giving part of their life so someone else can have it a little better. It is not about a person or people taking from those who have more through political force, or attempts at guilt trips."

Duggan acknowledges the "valorization of creativity in the face of conformity" in Rand: "It's appealing to a lot of her readers ... I wrote the book in part to speak to them—to help us all see the romance of cruelty that underpins her themes."

One has to respect Rand's determination, and it's easy to understand her horror over the Soviets' behavior during their late 1940s ascendency. There's a responsible-enough argument to be made that four terms of FDR were too socialist for the nation's good, and certainly Republicans aren't shy about making it.

The hugely entertaining YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints has been scathing in opposition to the dog-eat-dog (or rather lobster-eat-lobster) work of the popular conservative philosopher Jordan Peterson. But she admits that Peterson has a point. Of course, there are sloppy kids out there lacking guidance; they need someone to tell them to stand up straight and clean up their rooms. Similarly, there are human doormats out there who could learn from the intransigence of Rand.

But the problem with Ayn Rand as a lodestar is one that I understand very well, on the grounds that it takes one to know one: she's a cinema-soaked thinker, accustomed to seeing the people of the world with haloes or cloven hooves. Duggan notes, "she did not really understand how actually existing capitalism worked, she adhered to a fantasy version of it. She could never distinguish the capitalist welfare state from an international socialist project. So she equated the New Deal with Bolshevism, and saw environmentalists in the 1970s as an apocalyptic threat to the good life." Rand also thought the links between cigarettes and cancer were just more communist bushwa, though she quit smoking when she got a lesion on her lungs.

Rand's intractability has dimmed the vision of the right. That confusion will only spread like a pea-soup fog in 2020. Do they realize how different the years 1947 and 2019 are? Today, capitalism is as robust as kudzu vines. By contrast, it's hard to find honest-to-God red-flag-snapping communism except in boutique form, as it were, in isolated tiny nations. Yet, democratic socialism, in which remorseless greed is leashed and everyone gets a vote, is fatally conflated with Sovietism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: she'll snatch your house, she'll steal your car, she'll pimp your momma to a Commissar.

It's hard to eclipse the darkly fascinating picture Rand made, though. A sort of literary mural, vast and furious, it's a reversal of the wide worker's-paradise paintings one sees in Mexico and on the sides of Northern California food co-ops. In Rand's literary fresco, the crowded, dunderheaded workers are the real danger. They dare to sass their betters, the architects of prosperity, instead of submitting to them with bowed heads, like the rabble they are.

Nick Veronin contributed to this story.