Celebrating Self-Centered Materialism
Most people don't pay much attention to the Oscar nominations for best documentary. Their focus is on the much-hyped feature film sweepstakes that this year pits mega-blockbuster, Titanic, against critics' darling, L.A. Confidential. But the documentary contests, divided into long- and short-form competitions, shouldn't be ignored. The films nominated often highlight issues that are becoming influential among opinion makers, and an examination of their content can help us identify certain intellectual trends that are shaping our culture.
Ayn Rand: A Sense of Lifeis a two-anda-half-hour documentary about the life and ideas of the best-selling novelist and would-be economist-philosopher who died 16 years ago. A fierce opponent of communism and an enthusiastic cheerleader for free markets, Rand was despised by America's powerful, left-leaning intelligentsia for most of her career.
Nevertheless, her first-rate pulp literary skills enabled her novels to find a mass audience. The Fountainhead (1943) has sold more than 4 million copies to date and Atlas Shrugged (1957) 5 million. In addition, her various economic and philosophic texts have sold more than 11 million copies.
Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905. Her father was a successful pharmacist who ran afoul of the communists. At age 12 she declared herself an atheist and militantly held to that position for the rest of her life, proclaiming that belief in God was “evil.”
Despising what she considered Russian pessimism and its glorification of the tragic, she emigrated at age 21 to America whose upbeat, confident modernism inspired her. There she changed her name, taking her surname from the Remington-Rand typewriter with which she began to write.
She soon moved to Hollywood where her arguments against Soviet communism impressed the legendary director, Cecil B. De Mille, who hired her as an extra and then as a screenwriter. Ironically, Rand, a tireless opponent of Christianity, first met her husband on the set of De Mille's epic about Jesus, King of Kings.
Several of her screenplays became movies (Red Pawn and Love Letters), but she wasn't satisfied. She was determined that her work be an uncompromising platform for her ideas. So she turned to novels and plays.
After a few false starts, she produced her magnum opus, The Fountainhead, which skillfully popularized her thinking. Its handsome, super-masculine hero was based on an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright, who blows up his finest building rather than compromise his integrity. The book champions men like him who possess “unborrowed vision” and whose only motive is the creation of powerful, beautiful works.
Rand ridicules “second-handers” who believe that man and his creations exist to serve others. She and her fictional heroes label this kind of thinking “altruism,” which she believes is a weapon of exploitation that makes parasites of those who are supposed to be helped.
On moral issues she sounds like Frederick Nietzsche, watered down for junior high school students, and it gets worse. Rand contrasted her extreme form of individualism with collectivism as practiced in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In her muddled mind, their totalitarian societies were somehow extensions of altruism, with the Holocaust and the gulag as inevitable results. America, on the other hand, is celebrated as the promised land because it was built on “the pursuit of happiness,” which she interprets as a personal, selfish motive.
The Fountainhead and its strange mixture of contradictory notions was rejected by 12 different publishers before finding a home. But once in the bookstores it struck a chord with American conservatives who were disgruntled by their culture's mass society and its ever-expanding federal government.
After a hit movie, starring Gary Cooper, took the novel's message to an even larger audience, Rand decided to codify her ideas into a philosophy called objectivism and soon attracted a coterie of like-minded thinkers, the most famous of whom is Alan Greenspan, the present Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, who co-authored one of her economic texts.
The documentary's writer-director, Michael Paxton, presents these events with the uncritical eye of a true believer. His material includes photos of Rand on the set of King ofKings,clips from the movie version of The Fountainhead, and feisty TV interviews with Mike Wallace, Phil Donahue, and Tom Snyder. But what is missing from this dewy-eyed presentation are dissenting voices, particularly those of other conservatives.
In the 1950s, practicing Catholic William F. Buckley founded The National Review, one of whose goals was the creation of a broad-based, coherent set of conservative principles to challenge the liberal hegemony. Buckley was always careful to purge from his pages ideas he considered poisonous. Rand and her disdain for Judeo-Christian morality were the first to go. Attacking her pseudo-Nietzschean views directly, he declared: “Support for the weak is an automatic result of the free enterprise system because no one can bring prosperity to himself without bringing it to others.”
Most conservatives followed Buckley's lead, and despite her novels' continuing success, objectivism was treated as a slightly wacky cult.
Some 40 years later the renewal of interest in her thinking is disturbing but not surprising. The selective nature of the economic booms of the '80s and the '90s, combined with our celebrity-driven narcissistic popular culture, makes her philosophic texts such as The Virtue of Selfishness seem tailor-made for the moment. The radical libertarianism favored by most of the high-tech leaders of the digital revolution isn't very different from her own. There's little room in either for loving your neighbor as yourself. So if Ayn Rand: A Sense Of Life gets an award on Oscar night, it's another sign of how prevalent self-centered materialism and contempt for human community have become in our society.
- March 8-14, 1998