The world you desire can be won.
Ayn Rand on objectivism. (The Commonplace Book Project)
The Commonplace Project is a daily post based on Ray Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers: read a poem, a short story, and an essay every day for 1000 days. These posts start with a quote and go wherever the rabbit hole leads. Follow The 1000 Day MFA so you don’t miss a thing.
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.”
— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand was born on February 2. When I saw that, I thought: Oh, good. A literary birthday to write about. I’ll admit to not ever reading Rand. I was vaguely aware that I disagreed with her politics, but that’s about it.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my strongest connection to Ayn Rand is that scene from Dirty Dancing where Baby confronts the scumbag waiter who knocked up Penny. He tells her: Some people count. Some people don’t. And then he hands her his copy of The Fountainhead, marginalia and all.
Rand was an interesting woman. This is from her Wikipedia page.
Rand was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905, to a Russian-Jewish bourgeois family living in Saint Petersburg. She was the eldest of three daughters of Zinovy Zakharovich Rosenbaum and his wife, Anna Borisovna (née Kaplan). Her father was upwardly mobile and a pharmacist and her mother was socially ambitious and religiously observant. Rand later said she found school unchallenging and began writing screenplays at the age of eight and novels at the age of ten. At the prestigious Stoiunina Gymnasium, her closest friend was Vladimir Nabokov’s younger sister, Olga.
Okay. I mean, hanging out with Vladimir Nabokov’s little sister. That’s interesting, right? Apparently the two girls argued politics often, with Olga defending constitutional monarchy and Ayn defending “republican ideals.” No surprise there.
Anyway, I decided to go for it.
And then I tried to find a quote. I found stuff like this.
Ayn Rand on Native Americans.
“They (Native Americans) didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.”
— Ayn Rand, Q and A session following her address to the graduating class of The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, March 6, 1974
Ayn Rand on the environment.
“Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.”
— Ayn Rand, in her newsletter The Objectivist February 1971
Ayn Rand on being able to laugh at yourself.
“The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.”
— Ayn Rand, Question period following Lecture 11 of Leonard Peikoff’s series “The Philosophy of Objectivism,” 1976
Ayn Rand on poor people.
So, yeah. I don’t agree with much of what she thought. In fact, it disturbed me. I realized, as I was researching tonight that a big part of my discomfort is the same discomfort I always have when I’m faced with a libertarian (even though she preferred the term radical capitalist.)
My first husband became proudly Libertarian sometime after we married. It ruined him. It wrecked our marriage.
Anyway, Rand was a beautiful writer, so I was able to find a passage from Atlas Shrugged that moved me. I posted that at the top of this post. I’m not surprised. Words move me. I’m quite certain after trying to make my way tonight through the 2011 movie version of Atlas Shrugged that she didn’t mean by it what I took from it, but still.
As I fell deeper down my rabbit hole, I realized that a sentiment like “The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.” is one of those that sounds good in a Pinterest-ready sound bite, but wrong when you think on it too long. Especially when you combine it with some of the author’s more radical ideas.
Who says the world you desire is one you even should win? At what expense to other human beings? To the world itself?
I almost changed my mind about writing about her. Chose someone more palatable to me. Just about anyone, really. I just wasn’t sure I was up to falling down an Ayn Rand rabbit hole.
But I decided to go for it when I read this.
“America’s abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America’s industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages, and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, with every scientific discovery or technological advance- and thus the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way.”
— Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966)
She wrote that in 1966. I thought to myself — she is talking about the America that the MAGA folks are talking about, isn’t she? Trump and is followers seem to be pining for a post-WWII, pre-Civil-Rights-era America when White men were White men and arguing with them was dangerous. A time when social justice warriors weren’t even a thing. What political correctness?
I think Rand is referring to an even earlier America — a different time. A gilded age when white men made fortunes building cities and railroads.
She seemed to be writing about an idea of America that feels ugly to me, starting with her take on Native Americans. She wrote the quote above during a time of huge American upheaval with the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War kicking into high gear.
And she was focused on the idea of an America where allowing genius free (white?) men to pursue their interests without restraint resulted in a trickle down that meant “the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way.”
There has never been a time when that idea worked. Go back and watch that little video of Ayn Rand answering the question of whether she hated poor people again.
I am still fascinated by the idealized concept I quoted above. The idea that all that stands between you and becoming a Rockefeller or, why not, Donald Trump, is a lot of hard work and that we could all be billionaires if the government would just get out of our way is something that I can at least understand, even if I strongly disagree with it.
Rand believed in minimal government interference in anything. Her attitude seemed to be — let the chips fall where they may. If the environment suffers or poor people suffer so that individual people can have the world they desire, okay then. That’s just how it goes.
Interestingly, she also did not agree in government legislating morality — which is where her ideas (and the ideas of libertarians in general) trend back toward liberal territory and away from conservatism.
In Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Anne Conover Heller writes that Rand considered homosexuality immoral and disgusting, but believed there should be no laws restricting it. I’m not sure yet, but I might be intrigued enough to add this biography to my reading list.
Rand was against discrimination — not because she cared so much for the equality, but because she did not believe the government had the right to put laws on individual behavior. Including things like affirmative action and minimum wage.
Rand is often talked about as a libertarian. She was certainly the polar opposite of a democratic socialist — which is the political ideology that I most identify with.
She died in 1982, so she didn’t get to go toe-to-toe with Bernie Sanders during his run at the White House. But I found this Bernie rant at Alan Greenspan, who is a follower of Rand’s Objectivism philosophy very interesting.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.