Barbara Oakley is an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. She is the author of the first seriously funny book about evil, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend. (Her sister really did steal her mother's boyfriend, and far more besides.) Barbara has worked as a translator on Soviet trawlers, a radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, a teacher in China and an Army officer in Germany, among other adventures. She is at work on her next book, which will also provide an unusual take on people. Here she writes about Ayn Rand, objectivism and Atlas Shrugged.
Barbara Oakley on Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
I was tipsy by the time I got around to asking about what had bothered me for months. 'Did you know,' I said, thrusting a chin toward the picture of Stalin, 'that he was responsible for the death of twenty million?'
'Well,' sniffed one of my Soviet tablemates, 'everybody makes mistakes.'
In the early 1980s, I spent several fishing seasons working aboard Russian trawlers - then technically part of the 'Evil Empire' of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, I found that inefficiency, incompetence, and a blasé attitude toward hardship were the least of communism's problems. It was the all-pervasive fear that made the system so horrific. Overall, the Soviet Union, I knew, hadn't changed much since 1926, when 20-year-old Alisa Rosenbaum heard, the evening before she slipped out of the country: 'Tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery, and that we are all dying slowly.' Rosenbaum was later to rename herself Ayn Rand, and become an internationally renowned philosopher and best-selling novelist.
Communism, with its creed of 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,' sounds so much nicer than the seemingly greedy approach of capitalism. But communism takes little account of naturally nasty sorts who believe that their needs are far more important than anyone else's. Without direct personal experience such as my own, which avoided the glorious, brittle façade of communism presented to journalists and tourists, it's difficult to understand how awful the system turns out to be in actual practice.
Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is her master work, and a profound and wise refutation of communism. It was meant to be a novel that explained her philosophy of objectivism - a sort of anti-communism - through a compelling fictional narrative. Indeed, objectivism has much to recommend it: it emphasizes old-school values such as integrity, logical thinking, and the importance of working hard. But objectivism also prizes some characteristics that are at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as the importance of pride and self-interest, and the unhealthiness of altruism. Many who read Rand's works are put off by these latter ideas, as well as by her one-dimensional characters, tendentious writing, and sex scenes involving domination and pain. How on earth, a reader might wonder, could anyone come up with such a strange pastiche of a philosophy?
Objectivists often feel that Rand's personal life should have no bearing on her philosophy. I suspect this may be because objectivists like to feel that Rand's philosophy is so insightful and complete that it doesn't matter where it came from. But to understand Rand's philosophy, how it was created, and how some of its seeming flaws actually provide its strongest merits, I think it's important to understand not only the communist system that originally shaped Rand's thinking, but also certain aspects of Rand's unusual personality.
Modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal that some individuals can have severe personality dysfunction, yet never come in for treatment. This appears to have been the case with Rand, whose brilliant, yet bizarre behavior worsened as she grew older. Rand's hypnotic charisma - noted by almost everyone she met - led her to convince her leading disciple, Nathaniel Brandon, to begin a sexual affair with her despite the fact that he was 25 years younger. Rand also convinced her long-suffering husband Frank, as well as Brandon's wife Barbara, to 'happily' go along with the weekly trysts.
The ultimate of temperamental narcissists, Rand basked in the attention as her fame grew. She charmed the public with her lectures. Brief exposure showed her at her very best - few had any idea of her paranoid, controlling, manipulative, emotionally impulsive side, which placed the blame for any problems she created on others. Rand almost invariably drove off anyone who became close to her. Yet she herself insisted that she had never had an emotion that clashed with reason. As one ex-friend, Edith Ephron, noted, 'There is no way to communicate how crazy she was.'
In fact, Rand's overall pattern of behavior showed every sign of what is now known as borderline personality disorder - a disorder characterized by differences in the shape and functioning of many areas of the brain. It's interesting to note that another characteristic of borderline personality disorder is magical thinking - a strong belief that one can will something, often something completely improbable, into reality. Although Rand derisively rejected such thinking in others, it was her own magical thinking - she would become a famous novelist - that allowed the penniless, heavily accented unknown to become one of the English-speaking world's best-selling authors. Let's be clear here - without Rand's dysfunction, no one would have ever even heard of her ideas, good, bad, or indifferent.
But there's more. Rand's focus on the importance of self-interest seems, well, selfish. But she was right to note that, bad as the trait might seem, it forms a crucial part of the individualism that underlies Western notions of freedom. Rand knew the consequences of communism, where people can suffer terribly when self-interest, that most natural of human traits, is denied. After all, why even bother to work hard to bring in the crops if the harvest doesn't belong to you?
How did Rand unravel the importance of self-interest, when it went against the very grain of Judeo-Christian cultural traditions, and those around her during her formative years marched uniformly to the tune of communism? Rand's dysfunction, this time in the form of her narcissism, again appears to have played a powerful role. She was apparently 'wired' to believe that she herself was extraordinarily important, so a philosophy emphasizing self-importance would certainly have seemed more natural. And Rand had also seen how notions of altruism could be used by the shiftless to mooch off the lives of others. (Rand was not against generosity, for example, helping a hard-working but penniless young man to get his footing after he first arrived as an immigrant.) Finally, without other traits often seen in borderline personality disorder, such as inflexibility and a dogmatic conviction that she was right, Rand could never have been so assertive in standing up to the many who disagreed with her.
Again, let's be clear. Rand's 'dysfunction' appears to have helped her perceive reality very differently from others without her neural quirks. Even her brilliance, it seems, came at a price: some genes associated with intelligence are also associated with the neuroticism that so afflicted Rand.
In fact, it appears Rand's ideas, both good and bad, were shaped by her neurochemistry - something Rand herself would have vehemently denied. Her conviction that her perceptions and resulting conclusions were based on objective reality went to extremes. For example, when she suffered from medication-induced hallucinations during a hospitalization, Rand insisted they must have been real. After all, she reasoned, she had seen what she had seen with her own seemingly objective eyes. When a friend insisted on the illusional nature of what she had seen, Rand ended the friendship. And, as writer Daniel Flynn states, 'What Randians considered "objective" were in fact personal tastes - that is, Ayn Rand's eclectic tastes.'
Perhaps most importantly, Randians - the ultimate libertarians - believe everyone has equally free will to decide how to live their lives. If Rand's husband chose, for example, to stay with her despite being cuckolded, who are we to judge? But it appears everyone does not have equally free will. Borderlines, for example, are eminently capable of breaking down people's psychological defences, leaving them to 'choose' a life of physical and mental abuse. Rand's husband Frank, a kind, gentle, rather spineless individual even when she first met him, became Rand's virtual puppet, unable to leave despite his tremendous unhappiness.
In actuality, our free will is often far more constrained and shaped by our genetically pre-programmed and environmentally conditioned personality traits than we might ever realize. Psychopaths, for example, some of whom appear to have been formed by an unfortunate confluence of genetics, consciously understand the right thing to do. They often instead choose the wrong thing, however, because it seems they don't have the neural apparatus to make them feel uncomfortable when they do the wrong thing. Of course their free will leads them to stumble around 'purposefully' making wrong choices.
Communism and objectivism provide differing strategies for explaining and living our lives. Each strategy mischaracterizes, ignores, or oversimplifies various important human attributes. But in the end, it's perhaps most important to recognize that objectivism has long served an important role in upholding the sanctity of the individual - a sanctity ignored by communist icons Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose psychological dysfunction far surpassed Rand's. And it also serves a critical role in exposing problems with Judeo-Christian apologists whose altruism can enable the lazy and corrupt. In short, objectivism and Atlas Shrugged, birthed from Ayn Rand's deeply dysfunctional personality, have played a crucial balancing role for modern society. (I would like to thank objectivist Doug Basberg for his generosity in commenting on earlier drafts of this essay.)