Friday, October 12, 2007

How Ayn Rand Changed My Life

In 1992 I went to Annapolis, Maryland to attend a weeklong training session for a part-time job I had with the U. S. Department of Labor. At the first session of this training, after everyone had taken turns introducing themselves, the training instructor had us play an “ice-breaker” game. The instructor had each participant list his or her favorite beverage, book and broadcaster on a sheet of paper and turn it in. She then read off the three answers from each class participant and after each reading the class was to guess which list belonged to which person. More than one person listed “ice tea” and “The Bible”. I had easily listed “Bourbon and coke” and “Atlas Shrugged”, but not having a preferred broadcaster, listed “Katie Couric”, since that was the only name that came to mind.

When the moderator read my selections, several people guessed Louella Ballenger, one of the class instructors, as the author of my list. It seems that a few months earlier, in another training session, Louella had listed Atlas Shrugged. Some of her fellow instructors had remembered. After this exercise, I wanted to meet the other person who had listed Atlas Shrugged as her favorite book and when the mid-morning break came, I introduced my self. In our brief exchange during the break we shared how much we each had appreciated the book and we enjoyed our brief conversation and agreed to meet in the hotel lounge after class for a drink and more conversation.

When we met for that drink, we found out that we had much in common and enjoyed the conversation, and the drink tuned into dinner and then after dinner drinks. We continued to talk until late. The mellow lounge had, by this time, been taken over by punk rockers and high volume music and we continue to try to have conversation over the loud music, screaming in each others ear until we finally called it a night at about 11 o’clock.

We started the evening off talking about Ayn Rand and our political development and continued in the evening talking about current events, politics, history, our background, travel, family and children and numerous other topics. There was never an awkward moment. The conversation flowed from one topic to the other for hours. Louella was graceful, intelligent, well read, pretty, and charming. I was smitten. I had never felt so connected to another person in my life. I was excited to find someone who understood what I was talking about and who had read many of the same books and had the same heroes.

During that training week we socialized on several other occasions, often with other class members. After the week’s training ended, we continued to talk by phone and write each other letters. A few months later, I returned for another training session and our relationship deepened. To make a long story short, our friendship developed into a romantic relationship, we began visiting each other back and forth, took annual vacations together, and in 2003, Louella took early retirement, moved to Nashville, and we got married. Thank you Ayn Rand for introducing me to the love of my life.

I first read Atlas Shrugged when I was 14 or 15 years old. I plucked it off of a shelf at Anna Mae Denton’s Storefront Gospel Mission. My father who was a gospel singer would go to the mission to entertain the down-and-out and seek to save lost souls. The mission had a bookcase of used books to give away to the people they served. I doubt Sister Denton was aware that she had on her bookshelves a book by a leading atheist of the era.

Much of the book was over my head, but it stirred in me a passion for individualism, private property rights, limited government and freedom. I saw the distinction between those who see man as existing to be a slave to the interest of others and those who see that one’s obligation is to seek one’s own happiness. I saw a difference between those who wish to clamp down the human spirit and those who want to celebrate it. I clearly saw the distinction between those who lay claim to the wealth of others and those who are the creators of wealth and claim a right to what they create. The efficacy of the marketplace was clear, but so also was the moral argument for capitalism. After Atlas Shrugged, I went on to read The Fountainhead, We the Living, and Rand’s various collections of essays.

I again read Atlas on two other occasions, once in the mid 70’s when I was in college and again in the late 80’s. By the time I read the book the second and third time, I was better educated and better read. In some respects, I got more out of the book with subsequent readings. Having been exposed to economic theory and political philosophy I could more fully understand some concept that I am sure I did not grasp on my first reading. However, I was also less ready to accept her views unquestioningly. My belief in rugged individualism was tempered by other influences. And, ideology was tempered by practicality.

No doubt millions have read Atlas or Fountainhead and appreciated these books as steamy love stories or adventure-thrillers or mystery novels and skimmed over the political philosophy and never grasped their importance. Other however, read them and became more Randian than Rand herself. Like some Christians or Marxist, a few who become disciples of Rand spend their life trying to find the true meaning of the doctrine, they grapple with obscure hair-splitting analysis, and passionately seeks to purge from the movement those who are less pure than they. I never went there, and neither have most people who have been influenced by Rand. I have never considered myself an “Objectivist” and only for a few months in my life thought of myself as a libertarian, but the writing of Rand definitely influenced my political development.

Recently I saw in separate interviews, both former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pay tribute to Ayn Rand for their political development. Scores of influential people look to Ayn Rand as the thinker who helped develop their political philosophy. Not only did she influence political thought and economic theory but also was influential in the fields of ethics, aesthetics, and psychology. Her books have sold over 20 million copies and are still in demand and those inspired by her ideas have published numerous books and founded several academic and public policy institutes. The modern libertarian movement would not exist except for the influence of Rand.

A few months ago, I saw a replay of an interview with economist Milton Freedman. The interviewer asked him about the roll of Ayn Rand in political philosophy. He said that Ayn Rand is a “great place to start, but a poor place to end up”. I thing he is correct. There is a risk in reading Rand. A few will end up on the fringe, but most will not. Most who read Rand will be instilled with a moral basis for believing in freedom and will gain an understanding of why the collectivist impulse is morally wrong. Her work is powerful. If there is one single book that I would wish every young person would read, it is Atlas Shrugged.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

50 Years Later, Rand's Atlas Shrugged Still Relevant


For intellectual heft, the capacity to spark debate and controversy, the number of young people inspired by her writing over the decades, the endurance of her ideas as the basis of a philosophical movement, the broad influence of those ideas -- and oh yes, for the number of books sold -- she was the most important American author of the post-World War II era.

And on this, the week of the 50th anniversary of publication of her greatest work, "Atlas Shrugged," if you happen to disagree with that assertion, Ayn Rand would not be at all bashful in pointing out the grievous error in your thinking.
To continue reading: Atlas Shrugged

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